Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Celebrating America's Best Teacher (and Why You'll NEVER read About That on

Some time ago, a guy named Steve Brill -a non-teacher, non-education and virtual know-nothing to the entire education discussion in America- wrote a book entitled "Class Warfare". Many of us in the classroom felt it was skewed against teachers and against real pedagogical process in America. But Gotham Schools, widely regarded as the 'must read' website on education in New York City (as close to "The Paper of Record" as  the education discussions can get out here) gave the book wide coverage in a piece entitled  "We Read Steve Brill's Class Warfare So You Don't Have To" (see here). The premise of the piece was that the book was so important that it had to be read and that the writers of GS were helping you by summarizing it. The book was also included in a wide number of Gotham School's published pieces during that period, namely here and here and here and here . In fact, a search for the term "Steve Brill" returns five full pages of entries (you can check it out here)! That's a lot of mentioning of the man who hadn't taught, hadn't lead and hadn't had much, if anything, to do with the education students in America .

On a different note; Just this past week, the man who is widely regarded as the finest teacher in the United States released his fifth book -his last four were best-sellers. His name is Rafe Esquith. Mr. Esquith is a 30 year veteran elementary school teacher from, Los Angeles. He has, according to this piece, been commended by the Dalai Lama, President Obama and Queen Elizabeth II (the latter having named him a member of the British Empire).  News of this publication was shared by Valerie Strauss, who writes "The Answer Sheet" blog for the Washington Post (one of the most informed edu writers in the country). It was also shared by Jay Mathews, who writes the "Class Struggle" blog for the same publication (aand is another one of the most informed edu writers in the country). Mr. Mathews, who by the way, discovered Jaime Escalante (the  LA teacher depicted in the movie 'Stand and Deliver". Mathews was the one who made Escalante famous), has written about Mr. Esquith before. In fact, he's mentioned him fifteen times in the past according to this Google Search. And Strauss shared an interesting set of fun facts in her piece about Esquith:
When he goes to China he is so popular he needs security guards to protect him from the crush of the crowds.
*He is the only K-12 teacher to be awarded the president’s National Medal of the Arts.
*Queen Elizabeth made him a member of the British Empire.
*The Dalai Lama gave him the Compassion in Action Award.
*He has turned down requests to have a Hollywood movie made about his work.
*A documentary, “The Atticus Finch of Hobart Elementary,” was made about thefamous Shakespeare program he has run for years at Hobart, where all of his students appear in at least one full-length production a year. The English actor Ian McKellen actually noticed some of Esquith’s young students mouthing the words to a Shakespearean play in which he was performing in Los Angeles.
*He has been given the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award, Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award, and Disney’s National Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. He’s gotten more awards and honors, but you should have the idea by now.

By almost any measurable standard, a discussion about education in America -including teacher quality and improving teaching- should and must include America's best teacher; Rafe Esquith. There are two logical reasons for this. 1) Because we should all be familiar with the person who is widely seen as 'doing it' on a higher plane than the rest of us. The way every basketball player should know Lebron and every baseball player Derek Jeter, every teacher or would-be teacher and every principal who is interested in high quality teaching- should know Rafe Esquith. People who care about education might have posters of him on the walls of their college dorms. His books should be on the shelves of anyone who claims to care about education. He should be celebrated; everywhere.  2) Because the guy is sharing his stuff! Mr. Esquith isn't just a master teacher. He's also a published author. He doesn't write about high stakes tests and the education reform movement. he writes about teaching. His audience are teachers (and ostensibly anyone interested in high quality teaching) and he's not interested in much else. If you can trust anyone about what truly makes the type of teaching that can change the world, then you should be able to trust your time with one of his books.

A search on for the term "Rafe Esquith" returned just two mentions. One here from 2009 and one here from last week. Both of them were link backs from Mathew's blog (a compliment among bloggers, to be sure, but a superficial one as well). Neither of them represent any real energy or effort from the people at Those are facts. You should accept them as such.

Now you shouldn't view this as an attack on Gotham Schools.  I've interacted with the folks at that website for a few years now. All of them are good, intelligent people with excellent people skills and pedigree degrees. They're ready to engage or to listen (or defend, as was the case with one reporter when I called the site 'neo-lib' leaning) and they represent something fairly important; non-profit journalism. But anyone who seeks to question where their interests lie -with the  edu reform pulse (which is profit minded and has wrought a terrible nightmare on educators across the country) or with education -I mean real education that really can change the lives of millions of children- need only examine where they have expended their energies: The Bloke who cashed in by writing an anti teacher book about education and then vanished back under the rock from which he crawled grabbed GothamSchools' brightest spotlight. Rafe Esquith grabbed one small link back.

Why aren't more people familiar with the best teacher in America? Because the media who write about education write about something different.

**Update: The Gotham Twitter account kindly responded to this post. I have a different read of those links (you can decide for yourself), but it's only fair to say they question that assertion.

They also responded to my inquiry as to whether or not they would bother to read the book:

While I hope they do read the book (and if they say they will they probably really will) it's worth mentioning that they do call attention to what happens in other places around the country quite often. I feel that if they can mention LA here , then they can mention the epitome of pedagogy. Just my little opinion (just my little blog).  Cool that they engaged, though.**


  1. Fun to read this. I take GS very seriously too and I like that they linked to your piece (how I found it).

    I agree with you that Esquith should be considered important - I agree with several of the perspectives he offers in the two books I checked out from the library last week (students need more time, his demand for excellence, his resistance to the insane make-work of the coffee and clipboard crowd). But since I'm now returning those two books - after reading only 50 pages - I'm curious if you'll reply to a suspicion I have. You didn't mention anything specific or quote from any of the books you touted. Maybe you didn't really read Esquith either?

    Maybe, even though he's (like you say) done some great things, and won awards, and important people like him, and he should correctly be acknowledged as LeBron-esque - we should acknowledge that we also don't read books by LeBron? Or did you watch "The Decision"?

    Maybe Esquith hanging out and working with little kids for 70 hours a week for more than a decade reveals an occupational hazard of a cartoony superficiality and insatiable megalomania - or maybe he was always that way.

    Many people who have read anything he's written will recognize the description - but if anybody's about to make the decision to read him should consider the example of his Atticus fixation. He describes (No Shortcuts) being denounced as a tyrant by three former students and considers suicide. Following that turmoil, and in an uncritical understanding of "To Kill A Mockingbird", he tries to base his life on the example of Atticus. He proudly relates at the end of a chapter, with no sign of awareness of the disturbingness of the fact or the telling, how one student signs letters to him as "Scout".

    Or maybe you actually have read his books because his ravaging insecurity and superficiality don't psychologically threaten you as much as they threaten my own attempt to offset my 9 months of classroom control and immersion in teenage thinking.

    It might be that his classroom work - like LeBron's work on the court - reveals genius and mostly remains untainted by the nuclear narcissism of both of their after-work remarks. I'd like to see him teach and would hope to see that he's not bending the little kids into just the shapes that best prop up his ravenous ego.

    1.  Andy,

      Thanks for the comment. I had a very long reply that addressed almost all of what you shared (and then some). Alas, it ran over 4096 characters, and blogger didn't let me post. For now, let me reply to the points you made that are more salient to this piece, and then invite you to send me an email if you want to read the whole long response.

      The actual point of this piece was to highlight the lack of celebrity that the edu press brings to great teachers like Esquith. There is a reason why smart people don't know who he is (and why you and I probably couldn't name the "second best" teacher in America and why Stephen Lazar (probably the best social studies teacher NYC (and a guy who I see you've connected with in the past) isn't a household name in NYC either). That reason is that the media don't pay much attention to great teachers. Yet we all know finite details of Michelle rhee and Joel Klein? wth!!? The intent of the post was to highlight this reality and to assign blame of this to the misguided priorities of the edu press in general. If I represented myself as some type of expert on Rafe Esquith, then I misrepresented myself. I meant only to represent myself as an expert on misguideness and as a person who is somewhat knowledgeable about the edu press (which, actually, I think I am relative to most of my colleagues). I hope that helps clear things up.

      I think it was pretty cool that GS linked the post after all and continued to engage even after the update. I don't mind saying that when these   people started GS in the late oughts, they didn't know Jack about edu. They are now pretty much experts and I've noticed that they have become so because they're always engaging people. (To that end, I sort of figured they'd think about a link back.) I think you should continue engaging as well (anywhere and everywhere you can). Perspectives like yours need to be part of the discussion, otherwise the Rhees of the world move in to fill the vacuum. Not a good look.

      As to whether or not I've read him, the (long) explanation I gave was that I'm pretty sure I read one back in '07, but because my daughter had just been born and because of how I approach books like this in general, I didn't come away with the same shock to the psychology that you described. Feel free to drop me a line anytime for the full steam of thought on that.

      Thanks for the thought (and for reaffirming my belief that smart people really do read blogs!).