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Nothing To Fear: How To Build A Classroom Based on Trust

Courtesy of Rafe Esquith and Viking Penguin<br />
Courtesy of Rafe Esquith and Viking Penguin

Rafe Esquith teaches in a fifth-grade classroom in the heart of a Los Angeles neighborhood rife with gang violence. When kids enter the safe haven of his classroom (voluntarily arriving at 6:30 a.m. and remaining until 5:00 p.m.), they leave fear behind and learn how to trust and be trusted. In his latest book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire, Esquith talks about how a simple philosophy of “Be Nice. Work Hard” can inspire exceptional results.

When we think of teachers who exemplify the profession, who not only have the respect of their students and school community, but also their colleagues across the nation, Rafe Esquith is at the top of the list.

Esquith has taught for 23 years at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles. In a neighborhood plagued by gangs, guns, and drugs, his is a special classroom known as Room 56. Within its walls, children living in poverty play Vivaldi concertos, perform unabridged plays by Shakespeare, and go on to attend top universities.

In 2003, President Bush presented Esquith with the National Medal of Arts. He is the only teacher ever to receive this honor (but hopefully not the last). In addition, Esquith is the author of There Are No Shortcuts. In his new book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire: The Methods and Madness InsideRoom 56 (Viking Penguin, 2007), Esquith reveals many of the techniques that have made him one of the most acclaimed educators of our time. But while his honors and books have pushed him into the public realm, Esquith’s heart remains in the classroom. He still teaches every day in Room 56. In fact, his is one of the few education books written by “an actual classroom teacher,” as is stated on the cover.

Here’s a preview of what Esquith has to say about avoiding fear, building classroom trust, and what it means to teach with your hair on fire. Read on:

Finding an oasis
“There is more than one way to run a successful classroom—from using the philosophy of Thoreau to the philosophy of Mussolini. Over the last 25 years, I’ve tried practically everything to deal with the often maddening behavior of children in a school environment that accepts graffiti-covered walls and urine-soaked bathroom floors as normal.

Visitors to Room 56 never come away most impressed with the academic ability of the children, the style in which I present lessons, or the cleverness of the wall decorations. They come away shaking their heads over something else: the culture of the classroom. It’s calm. It is incredibly civil. It’s an oasis. But something is missing. Ironically, Room 56 is a special place not because of what it has, but because of what it is missing: fear.

In my early years, I actually planned to frighten the kids the first day of school. I wanted to make sure they knew I was boss. Some of my colleagues did the same, and we shared our supposed successes in getting the kids in order. Other classes were out of control, and we foolishly congratulated one another on our quiet classrooms and orderly children.

Then one day, many years ago, I watched a fantastic video featuring a first-rate teacher who told a story about his son and the Boston Red Sox.

He had inherited a priceless baseball signed by all the players of the legendary 1967 Sox. When his young
son asked to play catch with him, of course he warned the boy that they could never use that ball. Upon being asked why, the teacher realized that Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg, and the rest of the 1967 Sox meant nothing to his son. Instead of taking the time to explain, however, he simply told the boy they could not use the ball “because it had writing all over it.”

A few days later, the boy once again asked his father to play catch. When his father reminded him that they could not use the ball with the writing, his son informed him that he had solved the problem: He had licked off the writing!

Of course the father was ready to kill his own son. On second thought, however, he realized his boy had done nothing wrong. And from that day forward, the teacher carried the unsigned baseball with him everywhere he went. It reminded him that, when teaching or parenting, you must always try to see things from the child’s point of view and never use fear as a shortcut for education.

Painful though it was, I had to admit that many children in my class were behaving the way they were because they were afraid. Oh, lots of kids liked the class and quite a few learned all sorts of wonderful lessons. But I wanted more.

We spend so much time trying to raise reading and math scores. We push our kids to run faster and jump higher. Shouldn’t we also try to help them become better human beings?

In fact, all these years later, I’ve recognized that by improving the culture of my classroom, the ordinary challenges are navigated far more easily. It’s not easy to create a classroom without fear. It can take years. But it’s worth it.
While most classrooms are based on fear to keep the kids in line, our classroom is based on trust. The children hear the words and like them, but they are only words. It is deeds that will help the children see that I not only talk the talk but walk the walk.

I use the following example with the students on the first day. Most of us have participated in the trust exercise in which you fall back and are caught by a peer. Even if the catch is made a hundred times in a row, the trust is broken if the friend lets you fall the next time as a joke. Even if he swears he is sorry and will never let you fall again, you can never fall back without a seed of doubt.

My students learn that a broken trust is irreparable. Everything else can be fixed. Miss your homework assignment? Just tell me, accept the fact that you messed up, and we can move on. Did you break something?

It happens; we can take care of it. But break my trust and the rules change. Our relationship will be okay, but it will never be what it once was. Of course kids do break trust, and they should be given an opportunity to earn it back. But it takes time. The kids are proud of the trust I give them, and they do not want to lose it. They rarely do, and I make sure on a daily basis that I deserve the trust I ask of them.

I answer all questions. It does not matter if I have been asked them before. It does not matter if I am tired. The kids must see that I passionately want them to understand, and it never bothers me when they don’t. During an interview, a student named Alan once told a reporter, “Last year, I tried to ask my teacher a question. She became angry and said, ‘We’ve been over this. You weren’t listening!’ But I was listening! I just didn’t get it! Rafe will go over something five hundred times until I understand.”

We should never become frustrated when a student doesn’t understand something. Our positive and patient response to questions builds an immediate and lasting trust that transcends fear.

Reprinted with permission from Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, by Rafe Esquith (Viking Penguin, 2007).

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