A Teacher's Tough Model

By Peter H. Gibbon

Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page A23

There are more than 4 million teachers in America, yet we rarely hear their voices. Many are outstanding but shine unseen, remembered only in their communities and by grateful students. Perhaps teachers are too busy. Perhaps they have heard too many cliches. Or maybe they know that when the classroom door shuts, they have influence far exceeding that of principals and policymakers. For whatever reason, teachers rarely speak up, and that is sad. We should therefore be grateful for any glimpse into classrooms, any insight or inspiration from the people who actually instruct our children.

Over the summer I read a number of classroom narratives. The most interesting came from an iconoclastic fifth-grade teacher, Rafe Esquith, in "There Are No Shortcuts." Esquith believes that all students can love learning and achieve, despite crumbling schools, incompetent administrators, foolish curriculums and what he thinks is a misguided testing-accountability movement. The answers, according to Esquith, are smart teachers, classic literature, a longer school day and unremitting effort. The enemies are basal readers, dumbed-down tests, rigid unions, professional development classes, unimaginative administrators and incompetent colleagues.

Esquith's story is inspiring. He started teaching middle-class students in Southern California, but he felt that they had too much and he had it too easy, so he moved to Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles to teach students who lived in poor neighborhoods and knew little English. Esquith has taught at Hobart for 18 years and has become a legend. His students read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Crucible." They play Vivaldi, perform "King Lear" and outperform other students on standardized tests. They travel to the Hollywood Bowl, Yosemite National Park and Washington, D.C. Ian McKellen visits his class. Hal Holbrook is a patron. Prominent business executives finance some of his trips, and Walt Disney Co. has recognized him with a Teacher of the Year award.

I am not sure that Esquith's saga is replicable or that his stringent program would work for all teachers, but his critique of the educational establishment, though strong and sometimes simplistic, is worth our consideration. Esquith insists that teachers must be smart and well read. Teaching, argues Esquith, is a "holy mission" that demands maximum effort and offers the ultimate reward: transformed lives.

To be outstanding and transform lives, you don't use prepackaged curriculums or worry about state tests, according to Esquith. Basal readers and worksheets bore students. Instead, teach what you love, teach great works of literature, teach Shakespeare and Mark Twain and watch students rise to the challenge. Esquith's vigorous defense of high culture and classics is rare in a profession more worried about diversity than excellence, and a valuable antidote for students inculcated with an entertainment and celebrity culture.

Teaching, Esquith insists, is an evolving career. You experiment, make mistakes and self-correct. Esquith may be charismatic, but he is a careful planner. "I don't have a desk in the classroom. I'm on my feet, like Henry V exhorting his soldiers to fight on St. Crispin's Day. I have spent hours planning what chapter we will read. . . . Nothing is left to chance."

It would be fair to call Esquith an elitist -- an admittedly unusual description of a fifth-grade teacher. He has little use for the goal of self-esteem, insisting that skills come first. He believes in "multicultural sensitivity" but argues that this goal has eclipsed educational excellence. One night he took his students to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Lynn Harrell play Dvorak's cello concerto. Afterward the students went backstage to meet the cellist, and one asked shyly, "Mr. Harrell, how can you make music that sounds that beautiful?" Harrell responded: "Well, there are no shortcuts."

Esquith repeatedly rails against "a society that embraces mediocrity" in schools and culture. When his students go to watch the Dodgers, he instructs them in the history of baseball. When they attend a concert, he insists on good manners.

But he is no ordinary elitist. He teaches Malcolm X as well as Mark Twain. He internalizes the books he loves and learns lessons from his favorite fictional characters. From Huck Finn, he learns to be a social critic. After reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," he aspires to be kind. And he is instructed by his students as well as by books. From a 10-year-old student whom he carelessly rebukes, he learns that he can be mean. From a trio of academic superstars who turn hostile, he discovers that he has overemphasized intellectual accomplishment: "Discipline, hard work, perseverance and generosity of spirit are, in the final analysis, far more important."

Esquith may teach traditional texts, but he is not above using progressive insights. When reading "Treasure Island," students dress up as pirates. On Friday his students sit in a "Magic Circle" and share their feelings. He concedes that a good teacher must be a social worker and psychologist as well as a scholar. Esquith is successful because he combines the best of traditional and progressive pedagogy. He champions mental toughness, unreserved effort, high expectations and good character. Simultaneously, he cultivates personal relationships with his students, insists that learning be relevant and believes in group projects.

Professors urge teachers to be facilitators, not sages. Sociologists lament that teaching is a lonely profession without enough adult interaction. Policymakers complain about the low test scores of teachers. Rafe Esquith rebukes the whiners. By his example, he offers a new and heroic model for the teacher -- missionary, entrepreneur, rebel, social critic, crusader for the disadvantaged and high culture.

The writer is the author of "A Call to Heroism: Renewing America's Vision of Greatness." He is a senior research fellow at Boston University's School of Education.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company