Real Talk with Rafe Esquith: Making a Difference

Rafe Esquith on how a miscommunication led to a
deeper understanding of his role in the classroom.

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.

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During my first visit to China, something hilarious happened. I was scheduled to speak to teachers in Beijing, and informed the Municipal Commission of Education that my presentation would be titled “Making a Difference.” A few minutes after I began, 2,000 teachers were laughing like hyenas. What we had here, to quote Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke, was failure to communicate. The teachers had come to learn about new ways to teach subtraction! We were going to “make a difference.”

After we all had a good chuckle, I made it through the speech without causing an international incident. Afterward, at dinner, we talked about real teaching. And it didn’t take long to discover that teachers around the world are much more alike than different. We face the same problems: poverty, family dysfunction, large class sizes, deteriorating societal values, and broken systems. And we want to make a difference but often feel we have not.

Daily, cries for help from classroom leaders fill my mailbox: There is constant fighting…the boys chase each other around the room…I have had students hit me…the job has ruined my health.

The above are extreme situations, but most of us have had days where there just don’t seem to be enough reasons to keep trying. The frustration that comes with the job can transform the passionate into the desperate.

But please remember something: You do make a difference. Against all odds, walk into your classroom with a sense of integrity. Integrity comes from the Latin adjective integer. It refers to wholeness, where character and honesty cannot be divided from the whole.

When I think back to the presentation in China, perhaps the translation was more accurate than I had first believed. Making a difference for teachers is a lot like teaching integers. We actually add by subtracting. When we present ourselves as an honorable model in a dishonorable world, a few of our students will internalize the lesson. We challenge such students to aim for higher ground. Some will courageously take the road less traveled because a teacher showed them a different route.

Those students from long ago, practically forgotten, do not forget us.

I’m honored and grateful to have been in your class and to have had you as a ­teacher. Even though I have not kept in touch, I’m inspired by you to make a difference in the lives of my own students. Thank you for your love, hard work, and sacrifice.

I had the pleasure of being in your first class, in 1982. You taught us all about rock and roll. I fell in love with the Beatles.

I was an extremely shy child, and I totally and completely credit you for bringing me out of my shell and for showing me that I did have a place in the world, and it was going to be exciting. You were a life changer for me.

Thank you for all of the good deeds and hard work that you continue to do. It makes all the difference in the world.

Teachers make all the difference in the world. That’s what you do every day when you teach with integrity. You exhibit honor, kindness, and decency, and can be a sea of tranquillity in a child’s world of chaos. As a primary role model, you have the opportunity to remove insensitivity, cruelty, and fear from a youngster’s soul. Students who meet such teachers leave the class with a little less darkness in their hearts. The Chinese teachers were right after all. Teachers do make a difference. It’s addition by subtraction.


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