By Marty Finley
Oprah Winfrey is known for her generosity, whether it’s giving away automobiles to her TV audience, providing humanitarian aid to children in Africa or recognizing people for their achievements. Rafe Esquith, a fifth-grade school teacher in Los Angeles, has experienced recognition from Oprah, but he learned it did not come easy.
Esquith, who was declared National Teacher of the Year and won several awards for his teaching, spoke to teachers, administrators and students Thursday in the Perkins Building. Esquith presented examples of his teaching style, which he said opposes the views of many of America’s teachers.
One of his lead-in jokes was his story about Oprah.
As the story goes, Oprah wanted to give Esquith the Use your Life Award, but she needed to know about Esquith’s background. To do this, she hired a private investigator to follow Esquith around for a month. When the time elapsed, the investigator walked into Esquith’s class and told him he checked out; he would receive the award. The bad news: he was the most boring man alive.
Esquith apologized for being so boring, but said he wanted to share with the audience some secrets he learned over the years after many failures.
“Boring, ordinary people can really make a difference,” he said.
But he never apologized for his different take on teaching. He said he felt teachers must take a different path from modern society to achieve greatness.
“If I offend you, just remember,” Esquith said. “Socrates was the greatest teacher who ever lived, and they killed him.”
Esquith’s message was rooted in the foundation of how he ran his class. He said so many classrooms in America were ruled by fear, but he said fear was not productive. He said he ran his classroom through trust and a sense of fairness.
For instance, Esquith said he did not see how punishing an entire classroom of kids for one student’s mistake accomplished anything. He said the reasonable thing was to point out the person’s mistake and exclude that student from participation. He said students would respect this.
“Kids don’t mind a tough teacher,” he said. “They despise an unfair one.”
He also said he doesn’t believe in scolding or screaming at the children because it produces fear.
“You can’t scream at your kids to be nice; it sends a mixed message.”
Instead, he said the exclusion from participation is usually enough of a punishment to fit the student’s crime.
Esquith’s desire to help students is partly inspired by a feeling of anger, he said. He has taught at the same elementary school, known as Hobart, for more than 25 years.
The school is in an area of Los Angeles where students are plagued with various temptations such as guns, gangs and drugs. The school has more than 2,000 students, making it one of the biggest elementary schools in the country.
The poverty rate of the students is 94 percent. None of the students speak English as a first language, and if any of them decide to skip class, they’ll have to do battle with a 16-foot tall fence, Esquith said.
But, inside Esquith’s classroom, from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., students are transported away from the outside distractions and inside Esquith’s world, where Shakespeare sits alongside algebraic equations while the musically inclined students play “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles.
Besides the idea of trust, Esquith said his motto is “there are no shortcuts.” He said he despised the fast-food society where everyone wanted instant gratification or to be considered great with little effort.
Esquith said no one is really great at anything at first; it takes months and months and hundreds of hours to reach this goal.
He said he doesn’t tell someone something is great if it’s not, nor will he reward good behavior.
He said those things should be expected from students. He rewards those who put in extra work, such as those who stay longer in class or spend more time figuring out algebra.
His teaching methods tied into his six levels of thinking. He said most students are between levels one and five.
In the first five levels, people do things because of either positive or negative reinforcement; they will get rewarded or praised, or they will get punished. He said he strives to encourage his students to think on level six, an area he said most adults never reach.
In level six, a student does the right thing simply because that’s “who I am.” These students don’t have to think about or receive something in return. But Esquith said his classroom is not just a place for rules; he also makes time for fun.
He said he strives to put himself in his classroom as much as possible and has brought his love for baseball, rock ‘n’ roll music and Shakespeare into the students’ lives.
He even started his own student rock band, which he exhibited by presenting a world premiere video of his students playing “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors.
He said one reviewer could only say two words after seeing them play in concert: “Holy shit.”
The students have been recognized by celebrities, Congress and a documentary called “Hobart Shakespeareans” on PBS.
Despite the accolades Esquith and his students have received, he said only one thing really mattered.
“The only thing of which I am proud is that, after 26 years, I am still a classroom teacher,” he said.
Carolyn Garrison, an educator at Campbellsville University, said she was inspired by Esquith’s words.
“He was very motivating to us as older teachers,” she said.
Norma Wheat, special education program coordinator at Campbellsville, agreed.
“I wish I had him 29 years ago when I was teaching,” she said. “He gives me a new faith and hope in our teachers.”
As Esquith finished his speech, he compared teachers to starfish throwers, people who cast dying starfish back into the ocean in an attempt to save them.
He told the story of a man who was surrounded by dying starfish on a beach and worked to get them back in the water.
A kid walks up and asks what the man is doing.
“Well, you’re not gonna save them all,” the little boy says. “I know,” the man said. “But I can save this one.