Real Talk with Rafe Esquith: Go the Extra Mile

Rafe Esquith on how not passing the buck can reignite your fire for teaching.

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 and There Are No Shortcuts. His newest book is Real Talk for Real Teachers. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the National Medal of Arts.

For more:

We teachers take a lot of hits. Public schools are easy targets, often receiving the blame for societal problems that are beyond our control. However, there are times when self-reflection is necessary and helpful.

Despite the problems facing schools, and perhaps because of them, we must be passionate supporters of our students. I thought of this last week when I had a conversation with Janice. She’s an eighth grader at a public middle school. Janice was in my fifth-grade class, and she continues to study with me on Saturday mornings as part of a college preparatory program. Janice is brilliant, funny, diligent, and responsible. She is an extremely talented musician. Despite growing up in a single-parent family with few means, this young scholar plays the violin, viola, guitar, piano, and sitar. She often stops by my class to help after school.

Janice has never received a B in her life. All of her standardized test scores are perfect. She’s the dream kid, and so humble that she is practically invisible. I once asked her brother about her reputation at middle school, and he quipped, “If my school were a movie, Janice would be an extra.”

But last week, Janice told me a story that troubled me. She talked about a teacher she particularly disliked. She found him to be ill-prepared and often mean. The tale grew worse. A few girls in class complained that this man had made inappropriate remarks. There had been an investigation, and he had been removed from the school.

A few days later, Janice received her report card. The assessment included a B from the teacher who had been fired. Janice was stunned. She had kept all of her tests and assignments. Every paper had “100 percent” across the top.

She went to the long-term substitute and asked about her grade. He told her there was nothing he could do, because he had not issued the grade. Janice politely looked for assistance from more than 10 people at the school, including two guidance counselors. Each time, the story was the same. She was told nothing could be done.

One official was able to look up her class record. The data confirmed that Janice had received 100 percent on every test and had a perfect score for every classwork and homework assignment. All of her returned papers also had received perfect scores.

And yet no one would change her grade to an A.

Is it any wonder kids turn off to school? This is the student we all want in our class. Someone needed to be her advocate and tell Janice, “This is ridiculous. I am so sorry about this obvious mistake. I will make sure you are treated fairly.”

Janice will graduate middle school this June. Her future is bright. She will persevere. But she will be a little bit grimmer and more cynical.

We know there are flaws in the system. This is one we can fix. Make sure students know you are Harry S. Truman. You will not pass the buck. Listen to legitimate complaints. Stand up for a student, even if he is not in your class. Walk with him to the office. Insist that good work be rewarded. Be the kind of teacher who passionately supports worthy students. It can be very discouraging to be a teacher, and it’s easy to let disillusionment quench the fire you once brought to the classroom. Don’t let that happen. Janice deserved our best, and she didn’t get it. For her sake, and for all of our students’ sakes, we have to do better.


Click Here to Subscribe to Instructor Magazine

Instructor Cover

Instructor Magazine

Six issues per year filled with practical, fun, teacher-tested ideas for your classroom. Keep up with classroom trends, get expert teaching tips, and find dozens of resources in every issue.