Rafe Esquith Gets Real

Rafe Esquith, long-time teacher and author of Real Talk for Real Teachers, on risking failure to help kids succeed.

By Rafe Esquith
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Meet the Author Rafe Esquith has taught at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles for more than 25 years.

He is the author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, There Are No Shortcuts, and  his newest book is Real Talk for Real Teachers. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the National Medal of Arts.

To find out more, go to

Sound Advice

I am starting my thirty-first year in the classroom, and I am going to learn to play the bagpipes. I have been told that this will not be easy. And that’s fine with me. There is a method to this madness.

Those of us who have been teaching for a while know what we will face in our first staff meetings. We will be subjected to irrelevant lectures designed to improve our effectiveness. We will study data from test results that is neither accurate nor truly reflects a complete picture of student progress. And this year we contend with the Common Core, America’s newest five-year plan.

Veteran teachers sigh. We know that on day one, our audience will appear to be further behind than those of the past. The new students will seem slower, surlier, and more apathetic than their predecessors.

And yet I am excited about this year. Despite the barriers, I cannot wait for the new class to take their seats.

So let’s get to the bagpipes.

Every year I do something new in my classroom. I like to keep things fresh. Last year, a group of students worked with me to put on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This year’s play is Cymbeline. I will add songs and dances that help to tell the story.

Some of the scenes in Cymbeline take place in the countryside. A few months ago, I heard Paul McCartney’s lovely song “Mull of Kintyre.” Beauti­ful bagpipes back the exquisite melody. I thought how fantastic it would be if some of my students who already play wind instruments added bagpipes to their repertoire.

Here’s the point. Stamina is an issue in teaching. It’s a job that can wear you down. Real teachers fail constantly. There are some students beyond our reach. There are unreasonable pressures that doom us to fail before we even say “good morning.”

I am able to stay upbeat because I try something new every year. It might be teaching a new instrument, putting on a new play, or introducing a fresh science unit. Teaching new things keeps me energized, but there is an additional benefit.

My students will watch their teacher attempt a new project. They will observe him searching for a way to begin. They will see me fail at first, but not give up. They will watch me patiently and doggedly get better.

Some of them will follow. We lead by example. We must be the people we want our students to be. I will model the behavior and attitude I hope my students will emulate.

So as I sit in the torturous boredom of a staff meeting, I will be thinking of April 2014, when Cymbeline will be performed. It will be three hours long with 15 additional songs. One of them will be “Mull of Kintyre.”

I will do all the system asks of me. I will do my best to implement district policy. But I will quietly add a little spice of my own to make my classroom more challenging and fun for my students, and for me. That is the joy in teaching that keeps me energized.

What will you do that is new this year? It does not have to be spectacular. But that one new thing might be the spark that connects with a student and changes a life.


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  • Subjects:
    Character Education, Curriculum Development, Feelings and Emotions, Determination and Perseverance, Professional Development, Music, Drama, Theater, Musicals, Recruiting and Retaining Educators, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Mentoring
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