Teaching is really, really hard. Anyone who is a teacher already knows this, but I need to preface this post with that key piece of information lest any non-teachers be reading. Yes, it is the greatest job in the world, but it is also, at times, unremittingly tough.
I wanted to write about Rafe Esquith, because I am coming to the end of my third year, and teaching is still really hard. Esquith was one of my first-year crutches: when I wanted to give up, or thought “actually, I’m making no difference at all, and I don’t really know how to”, I would pick up one of his books and I would find the tenacity to carry on.
Thank you, Rafe Esquith, because those hard times became fewer and further between, and I stuck it out. But there are still times where you wonder “is it worth it?” – those are the times you need this book. Maybe leaving school after an arduous parents evening which has made your in-school working day 13 hours long, and that’s before you mark year 9 at home. Maybe in those long winter months, when you leave home and it is pitch black and you return home and it is pitch black. Maybe after marking 28 essays and 28 books and organizing revision clubs and breakfast boosters and lunch boosters and a student still says: “I don’t understand. I need more help”; or more time, which you don’t have, because the exam is this Monday, and you have 27 other students, and this child has only just started to care about their exam, and if they had cared two years ago they might not be saying this now.
Whatever the scenario, when in doubt, read “There are No Shortcuts.”
Rafe Esquith works in a system that sounds tougher than anything I have ever heard of in the UK. Early on in the book, Esquith writes to new teachers: “outstanding teaching will require you not only to do everything in your power to reach your students but to battle the forces that are supposed to be on your side.” His is an administration doggedly opposed to any kind of innovation or creativity in the classroom, portraying low expectations of children at every turn. One example of this is that he can’t teach a full text; he needs to teach snippets of great literature to drill kids in multiple choice exams which say nothing about their aptitude for essay writing. As an English teacher, my heart hurt when I realized that an act of rebellion was teaching a full text, something I took utterly for granted. Indeed, Esquith advises to “read your favourite books with your students”, something I can already do, thanks to an incredibly trusting Head of English.
Esquith teaches fifth grade in a primary school in an extremely deprived part of Los Angeles. The rallying cry of this book is in the title: there is no magic way to help students catch up who are far behind their peers. You just need to work at it; and Esquith does: terrifying commitment is shown in every utterance. At times, you do wonder whether he is not actually an exception, and whether all folk could find this level of hard work sustainable.
What is great about this particular book is that you realize that Esquith did not always get it right. He made mistakes, and yet persevered, and altered countless lives. This is comforting to any teacher beginning to doubt their “calling.”
So, if ever you need your fire for teaching re-lit (and “Lighting their Fires” is another Esquith I would recommend), turn to dear Rafe, marvel at his efforts, and remember he is a human just like you, and what you do is amazing.