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The Best Classroom Teacher in America

I have spent more time in Room 56 of the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in the last few years than any other classroom in America. It is an average-sized room — 25 by 30 feet — in an average Los Angeles public school. There is nothing unusual — at least in the way school systems assess pupils — about the 32-or-so fifth graders assigned there.

What keeps me coming back is the teacher, Rafe Esquith, and the eyebrow-lifting things he is doing with those kids.

Texas charter school leader Mike Feinberg, one of Esquith’s many disciples, calls Room 56 “Mecca.” It inspires near religious awe in some. Every year Esquith and his 10-year-olds, most from low-income Hispanic and Korean families, produce, rehearse and perform a Shakespearean drama, with rock music and modern jokes thrown in. They read books way above their grade level. They operate a working classroom economy, with salaries, rents and other financial intricacies. They study what they will be seeing in trips that take them all over the world (paid for by Esquith and generous supporters). Famous actors, writers and artists stop by. Often more than 60 students are jammed into the room, because children from other Hobart Boulevard classes and former Esquith students help with rehearsals after school.

Those of us who have had a chance to sit in a kid-sized chair in a corner tend to focus on the place, and how different it is from every other fifth grade we have ever seen. But Esquith’s latest book, due Aug. 25, reveals that to be a distorted perspective. What has been happening in Room 56 the last 24 years is not a matter of place, but of time.

In a series of short vignettes, Esquith shows that the sharp focus of his teaching and the aimlessness of much of the rest of urban education derive from different appreciations of time. Esquith believes every second is a gift, not to be squandered, but also not to be rushed. The people who run our urban schools, he says, try to cram too much into each day and so find whatever is learned fails to stick.

“Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World” is Esquith’s third book. I think he is the most effective, energetic and creative working classroom teacher in the country. Other great teachers have come close to his level and won some of the same awards. But they have left their classrooms to write books that become movies, or testify before Congress, or teach at better-paying universities or start new school organizations.

Although Esquith, a self-effacing UCLA grad with a soft voice and a big heart, is the best teacher we have still working with kids, many educators are better known and more often seen. This is because he is almost always with his kids. He acknowledges that his devotion to his students borders on the insane. He is in Room 56 12 hours a day plus Saturday. If you want to know Esquith, and you can’t get to Hobart Boulevard, you have to read his books.

“Lighting Their Fires” tells of a night he took five students to a Dodgers game, a favorite after-hours activity in which his fifth graders take turns. They arrive before the game started, an astonishing thing at that stadium. “Where is everybody?” asks one student when he sees, on a lovely Friday evening, the stands far from full and the three rows immediately in front of them completely empty. It is a lesson in being on time, and knowing why that matters.

“On most report cards,” Esquith writes, “teachers give some sort of grade based on a student’s ability to ‘make good use of time.’ But what does that really mean? In most cases, it is merely an evaluation of whether a child has stayed on task and finished an assignment. The grade has nothing to say about whether children learn the relevance of time. Some might wonder why a little kid would need to have the faintest idea about time and its importance, but this attitude can be fatal to a child’s development of good life habits. Children must understand that a person who appreciates time will be able to do exceptional things with his life.”

Esquith’s students often see the downside of disrespecting schedules. Latecomers to the Shakespeare plays in Room 56 are kept outside until a break in the action allows the ushers to let them in, and some of them are so irritatingly clueless that they write notes to the class complaining about being made to wait. On airport security lines heading for some out-of-town performance, teacher and students “see TSA workers being screamed at by passengers in line whose flights are leaving in fifteen minutes,” Esquith writes. The Hobart Shakespeareans, as the class is known, always arrive at the airport well in advance of their scheduled departure.

During a class, Esquith lists on the board all the activities his students pursue during a weekend, how much time is consumed by each and why that still leaves them five hours to read or study. At the Dodger game, he uses the scoreboard updates on National and American league games to demonstrate the consequences of different time zones. He and his students discuss why they perform Shakespeare, not some other playwright, and what this says about greatness being tested by time.

As the book demonstrates, Esquith is a film buff and has infected many of his students with that same passion. Room 56 has a Film Club, borrowing from the class library of videos and finding life lessons in screenplays. Esquith reflects on one of his favorite films, “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray. Murray realizes, late in the film, how much better a musician, a friend and a person he would be if he used the extra time he is getting, repeating the same day over and over, to learn.

In the book, as the Dodger game continues, Esquith’s lessons bump against the reality of drunken fans, insensitive parents and the distracting beach balls that often bounce around Dodgers stadium, but his students persevere. Each records the game meticulously on their score cards, not because Esquith told them to, but because they find it deepens their appreciation of the game, and the time they spend there.

By Steve Reiss  | August 7, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
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Inspiring piece. The only moment we have is now. It is amazing to see a teacher concentrate on that truth and achieve exceptional results.

Posted by: edbyronadams | August 7, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews,
I agree that Rafe Esquith is the best classroom teacher in America. The sheer amount of self-sacrifice guarantees him that place. Comparing other teachers to him is like comparing a kind neighbor to Mother Teresa. However, if you are looking for a teacher in our area who puts in his time and resources above and beyond typical level,while raising young children at home, runs the classroom economy and after school programs, who actually came closer to the spirit and letter of Rafe's teaching than anybody else I've seen -- look at Donald Martin at Arlington Traditional School.

Posted by: TheSiamese | August 7, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Rafe Esquith is an inspiration.

I bet there are a lot of DC-area teachers who show similar ingenuity and dedication (one example being Lisa Suben, whom you wrote about a few years ago). It sounds like another reader suggests Donald Martin at ATS.

What if you had an annual "Rafe Esquith Award for Inspired Teaching"? This wouldn't just be teacher of the year, or the Washington Post's top educators feature. You would actually go around and visit classrooms of teachers in the Washington area nominated by readers for being most Esquith-like. Those classrooms where you walk in...and suddenly are overcome by hope -- the hope that American education really can change, and all students could have a teacher like that.

I can even think of a prize these educators would really love. A trip to the Washington Post for his/her class.

Posted by: cbdc08 | August 7, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

One of the most striking aspects of Rafe's career is that he has stayed in the same school, teaching the same grade, in the same classroom for some 3 decades. I think there are important implications to this type of stability. In DCPS, teachers are frequently moved around from room to room, grade to grade and school to school. Many people seem to assume that educators need to be "shaken up." And then there's the frequent changes in principals. The situation is even worse in our charter schools, which have tremendous faculty and administrator turnover.

Posted by: Nemessis | August 7, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Everytime I read something about Rafe, it makes me want to be a 10 year old again and magically deposited into his classroom. Usually, NOTHING makes me want to return to the misery of youth.

Rafe gives his kids credit for what they can accomplish. Most of us don't give kids enough credit at all and actually prevent them for soaring -- hell, we don't let them even take off the tarmac.

For example, recent research shows that children as young as 9 years old can and should learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). After giving 147 grade-schoolers six hours of life-support training, researchers found that 86 percent of the kids performed CPR correctly -- four months after the training. Ethic Soup blog suggests that we teach kids CPR in school:

Also, sudden cardiac arrest often needs defibrillation along with CPR, which should be made available in our schools:

I know, without a doubt, it would add to the kids' self-esteem and self-confidence, which transfers to many other aspects of their life, both in and out of school. And some of these kids who are taught CPR and defibrillation WILL save lives -- maybe their teacher's life.

Posted by: s_mceachern | August 10, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

While Rafe's efforts are laudable they are not standards by which to measure other teachers by. Would we exalt the efforts of a DMV worker who spent 12 hours a day and Saturdays helping people get their IDs? Heck no - we would call them a chump. And yet teachers are supposed to sacrifice their very souls so that they can be "teachers of the year". Let's celebrate teachers who do a great job while clocking 40 hours or less working a week (including prepping and grading at home). You say that this can't be done, that teaching requires more effort - then something is obviously wrong with the system. If great teaching demands extreme sacrifice we will never achieve great teaching on a mass scale. It will be same as it ever was, a small group of sacrificers and the rest of us overworked people who barely have time to get home and have a home-cooked meal and a little time with our children before we can get them to bed and then go out at 9pm to do errands. Any measure of greatness has to keep that reality in mind because teachers are regular people just like that and they have responsibilities outside of the classroom as well.

Posted by: advaitamoon | August 11, 2009 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Rafe Esquith may be the best teacher in America today per Mr. Mathews. But Rafe Esquith pales in comparison with Elizabeth Ann Seton and today's teachers of the Daughters of Charity. Mr. Mathews is a Johnny Come Lately when it comes to recognizing the heroic effect of teachers. A couple of years ago Mr. Mathews was actively soliciting from parents to tell him about bad teachers in their child's school so that he can out them in his newspaper column. What a hypocrite.

Posted by: motherseton | August 11, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

for motherseton: We have an obligation as journalists to write about the good and the bad, but if you counted up my words over the last 20 years, you would find that the ratio of writing about good teachers to writing about bad ones would be approximately 20-1. I get a bit of heat about this inside the newspaper, but I decided a long time ago I would be more useful focusing on the best schools and teachers, so we could all see what works.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | August 12, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

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