When I started this series, my aim was to distil my thoughts on education through the prism of a single book: which one book, for me, held the key to that particular aspect? For curriculum, it was Cultural Literacy; for assessment, Make it Stick; for teaching, Teach Like a Champion, and for school leadership, Leverage Leadership.
For me, the book that most exemplifies my ethos of education is Rafe Esquith’s There are no shortcuts.
Esquith’s ethos, embodied in the title, was adopted by Mike Feinberg and David Levin shortly before they launched their ground-breaking charter school, KIPP; now a chain boasting significant results for poor children in the USA. KIPP in turn went on to inspire other schools, including King Solomon Academy in West London. Esquith’s legacy is an extraordinary one.
I first read this book during the 2010 Teach First Summer Institute: bright eyed and completely clueless, all I knew was that the amorphous challenge ahead would be grueling. Esquith’s book is often about defying the officials and putting students first, like when he writes: “when my district assigns textbooks to the children that would cure the most seriously afflicted insomniac, I’ve used texts of my own choosing to inspire the children to dedicate themselves to their studies.”
The writer confronts the challenge ahead: “Yes, life isn’t fair. Other kids have more money. Their English is better. Their parents are better connected.” And there are no shortcuts. The students just have to work harder and learn more. I especially liked Esquith’s focus on high academic expectations, notably in text choice (like students studying unabridged Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, Malcolm X and so on). This is no better exemplified than here:
If fifth-grade students are reading at a first-grade level, placing first-grade books in front of them will never help them catch up with the students across town who not only are in higher-achieving classrooms but have parents and tutors helping them every step of the way. Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up. If this means staying after school or taking extra hours sitting with the child and reading, so be it. There are no excuses.
I have been advised to withhold information like this from students in the name of motivation. But we must aim higher than this, as Esquith reminds us: “society is filled with forces of mediocrity that are going to battle you for the potential that is within your child.”
The second strapline of Esquith’s classroom, alongside “there are no shortcuts” is “be nice, work hard”; KIPP’s founders inverted this, and the founders of Michaela Community School in Wembley altered it to “work hard, be kind.” The message is simple, enduring and essential.
Much of this book is dedicated to examples of Esquith going above and beyond; extra classes, summer classes and the all-important field trips: “as a teacher of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, I came to understand that my students would work harder for a better life if they saw the life they were working for.” Esquith details raising funds for these trips which often include travel to a different state by plane and an overnight stay, underwritten by awe-inspiring fund-raising methods. Now, trips are often costly, both in terms of time, money and energy; they frequently, at secondary schools, lead to missed learning time. But I do think Esquith has something here, and I’ll be writing over the next few weeks about field trips and why I think they need to be prioritized despite all of these drawbacks. The learning is the thing, of course, and the ethos behind the learning is relentless progress, defying the odds. But ethos is also nurtured by those aspects of education which cause students to feel that emotional connection, that energy and excitement, and for some this is best achieved outside a classroom setting.
In summary, the key messages on ethos from this book are:
- There are no shortcuts to success; only hard work
- All children deserve a rich, challenging curriculum
- All children deserve to be educated in pleasant, safe classroom environments
- We as teachers must be honest but positive with our students, always believing they can achieve, and knowing how hard they will need to work to make it
- Teachers must do right by their students; this needs to be their guiding aim
Of course, this book comes with a major caveat: Esquith is exceptional; exceptional in his ability and exceptional in his commitment. Some people go into teaching to be missionaries; most do not. Some people submerge their lives to the lives of their students; most do not. Early in my career, I sought to emulate Esquith in my priorities and in my dedication.
But I’m not him. I’m a better teacher when I take time out to read fun books, go on holiday, visit a gym, sneak out of work early once in a blue moon to meet friends or go to the theatre, take an entire weekend off to do nothing but watch an entire series of something rubbish on Netflix. I’d like it if this was not true, but it is. I’m flawed.
But Esquith, I’ve come to realize, isn’t the model; Esquith is the touchstone. He is the bar we all strive to reach. So few of us will make it. I know I won’t. But in my best moments, his is the ethos that flows through me; it my lowest moments, his are the words I turn to for the gold standard of caring and commitment.
This is not a book for the practicalities of teaching and ethos. This is a book for inspiration.
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