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A realistic, refreshing look at teaching

bookFor most students, parents, and teachers, autumn rather than spring is the season of budding growth, new life, and hope.


For students, the classroom still feels fresh as an April morning. The books which they jam in their backpacks or stack in their lockers are still new and unfamiliar enough to arouse their curiosity. The friends whom they saw only on Facebook in the summer are sitting with them now every day for lunch. They groan when they discover that they’ve scored Miss Grundy for their English lit class and wonder if they’re up to the demands of Mr. Parker’s physics labs.

Parents go through a similar catharsis. Some are happy to have their children out of the house each day. Some face the bittersweet experience of leaving their children for their first day of kindergarten. Most eagerly anticipate the return of their children home from school, with some having the pleasure of listening to their second-grader deliver a full, rambling report on the day while others must do with a few grunted replies from a teenager. 

And teachers? Most of them reflect the excitement of the students. Veterans move confidently among the desks of the classroom, becoming familiar with names and faces as they explain their expectations and how the classroom will work. Rookies may do the same thing, but with their hearts in their throats. Most teachers want to do their best — not for reward, not for recognition, but because that drive to help others succeed is often a key component of their character.

In Real Talk For Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: “No Retreat, No Surrender!” (ISBN 978-0-670-01464-4, 2013, 319 pages, $26.95), Rafe Esquith offers a great gift to teachers and, in many ways, to parents. Esquith, who wrote Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire, an excellent account of his classroom at the Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, returns here to the subject of education, but with even more pointed advice for teachers.

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Two qualities in particular make this a valuable book for teachers and even for many parents in any educational institution, from a fourth-grade classroom to college, from Sunday school to Cub Scouts. Real Talk For Real Teachers serves first of all as a great source of enthusiasm from a man who has spent 28 years with students. Esquith, the recipient of many honors, including the president’s National Medal of the Arts, reveals here why he merited these awards. He is a teacher who leads his students to new experiences. He demonstrates that children want to be challenged, that they are capable of good behavior in the classroom — the mission of his Hobart Shakespeareans, as his students are called, is to “Be nice and work hard,” while the motto of his classroom is “There are no shortcuts.” Time and again, principally by the use of example, Esquith shows us that the students learning math, grammar, and reading in his classroom are also learning lessons for life: the value of perseverance and organization, for example, or the rewards of kindness and humility.  

Yet Esquith is also a realist. He knows that Hollywood movies set in the classroom, those films where the teacher enters the class, faces resistance and scorn, but finally leads the class in some triumphant and elevating breakthrough, don’t reflect the experiences of real teachers operating in real classrooms. In the opening pages of his book, for example, he recounts that thousands of young teachers have visited his classroom and always ask him the same question: “Rafe, if you could tell a beginning teacher one thing, what would it be?” In his written response here he welcomes them to the classroom and commends their dedication. But then he writes: “But here is what I really want all young teachers to know: ‘You Are Going To Have Bad Days.’”

Esquith frequently resorts to accounts of his own bad days, his encounters with students, and even worse, with some parents, many of whom have cursed or threatened him. He doesn’t sugarcoat his trials as a teacher. What he does give to teachers, however, is the way to face these trials, to accept criticism with equanimity whenever possible, to use reason rather than argument as a tool, to accept the fact that a teacher, any teacher, is going to fail at times to get through to a student. 

Along with these two principal ideas teachers new and old will find many helps. Esquith addresses the question of dress (he usually wears a tie in the classroom, believing that dressing up rather than down will encourage students to take their work seriously), the question of classroom discipline (he separates recalcitrant students from the group and at times even has the class decide on when they may return), the need for order and a few rules, and the sense of personal responsibility on which those rules and the effective operation of the classroom depend. He stresses the benefits of initiative, the importance of presentation (teachers who grade essays will relate), and the value of the courage to be found in asking questions. He encourages teachers, particularly novices, to take care of themselves physically and to make room in their lives for family and friends.

If you teach, if you’re looking for a gift for a teacher, if you’re interested in fresh ideas in education, or if you’re simply a parent who wants help with your own teaching skills, Real Talk For Real Teachers is the book for you. 


Real Talk For Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: “No Retreat, No Surrender!” by Rafe Esquith. Viking Adult, 2013. 336 pages.

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