Mar 14, 2008
Rafe Esquith, the teacher of Hobart Shakespearean Fame.
This rather ordinary-looking man is actually one of the world's most extraordinary people. He is a fifth grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School in California, the author of the book Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire and the subject of a fascinating PBS documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans. The film tells of his work with his fifth grade class in mounting and performing an entire Shakespearean play every year. What's remarkable is that these fifth graders--almost all of whom do not speak English as their primary language--learn the entire text of Hamlet, perform with it authentic feeling, and understand what it means. It is a testament to the talent and commitment of the kids, but also a testament to Mr. Esquith's teaching ability, his commitment and passion, and his belief in what his students can accomplish.
I first heard about the The Hobart Shakespeareans from my friend Rex Kosack (who incidentally also let me in on the secret that Netflix ships to Saipan, which was it's own little mini-revolution in my life. . .but I digress). When the movie came, Babs and I watched it and right away Babs knew she had to share it with the whole staff. So last Monday for our joint pre-school/elementary campus staff meeting we watched The Hobart Shakespeareans featuring the teaching genius of the Rafe Esquith. I also showed it to my sophomore English class, which has just finished readng Hamlet.
Having seen it three times now, there some key elements I've picked up from Rafe that I think make him so effective, and that I want to incorporate more into my own teaching. He's set the bar high and I'm determined to rise to the challenge!
1. He is serious but positive. Lately I've let myself get rather cranky and angry-sounding when talking to the kids. I loved how positive Rafe was, yet without ever letting there be any doubt that he was absolutely serious and all about business. You don't have to be mean to be taken seriously. You just have to be serious.
2. He's committed. Rafe is always in the moment when he teaches. He's not thinking about what he's going to do when he gets off work or wishing the class would be over soon. He's not planning his next class. He's 100% present and invested in what he's doing. I started making a conscious effort to be that way about a year ago and the difference in the response and interest of the students was dramatic. When you're excited and invested in what you're doing, they are more likely to be too.
3. He takes questions. One student in the documentary talks about how his previous teacher would get mad when he asked questions, telling him "We already went over this. Weren't you listening?" He was listening. . .he just didn't get it. I cringed when I heard that, because I know I've said things like that to my students and I don't want to. Often that frustrated response comes from feeling like I don't have enough time in the class period to help everyone and still stay on schedule but that's no excuse. Rafe welcomes questions and will go over material over and over and over and over again until they get it--that is his job after all, and it's mine too. It's hard enough for most kids to get up the courage to raise their hand and admitt they don't get it. As a teacher, I need to make sure they feel glad they asked, not wish they hadn't.
4. He lets each kid know they matter. This was something subtle, but it seemed to me that Rafe took notice of his students individually. I want to try to do that more as well.
5. He expects his kids to be more than ordinary. One of the things I love about teaching is the belief--and I'm sorry but this is a MUST if you're going to be a teacher--that every kid in your class has the potential to be extraordinary. It's true that not all of them will live up to that potential--and Rafe is very frank about recognizing that--but you have to believe that all of them CAN!
6. His emphasis is on how great the kids are, not how great he is. He says at one point in the documentary "If all they get from this school year is that this is a 'cool teacher' or a this was a 'fun year' then I have failed as a teacher." He wants kids to know it's not about him, it's about them. We teachers like to feel needed, like to feel important, like to feel cool and loved, we like to feel like we are making the "big difference" but I love that Rafe recognizes it can't be about us--it has to be about the student realizing their own potential, recognizing that they are valuable, important, cool, and loved--that they can make the biggest difference in their own lives.
Finally, I love Rafe's final words at the end of the documentary--his summation of what a good teacher is:
"The good ones don't give up."