Rafe Esquith is an award-winning American teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, in Los Angeles, California, where he has taught since 1984. Many of his students, who are all from a community of poor and immigrant families, start class very early, leave late, and typically achieve high scores in standardized tests. Esquith has authored books about teaching and his annual class Shakespeare productions were featured in the 2005 documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans.
His teaching honors include the 1992 Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, a Sigma Beta Delta Fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, Oprah Winfrey’s $100,000 "Use Your Life Award", Parents Magazine’s "As You Grow Award", National Medal of Arts, and Esquith was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Life and career
A 1981 graduate of UCLA, Esquith began teaching in 1982 at Ivanhoe Elementary School. Two years later, he moved to Hobart, the second-largest elementary school in the United States. Most of the school's 2,000 students come from immigrant Central American and Korean families. According to a 2005 report on National Public Radio, 90 percent of his students were living below the poverty level, and all were from immigrant families, with none speaking English as a first language.
Esquith's fifth-grade students consistently score in the top 5 to 10 percent of the country in standardized tests. Many of Esquith's students voluntarily start class at 6:30 each morning, two hours before the rest of the school's students. They volunteer to come early, work through recess, stay as late as 6:00 pm, and come to class during vacations and holidays.
Each April, Esquith’s students perform one of Shakespeare's plays as The Hobart Shakespeareans. They have opened for the Royal Shakespeare Company, have appeared at the Globe Theater in London, were hired by Sir Peter Hall to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and were the subjects of the 2005 documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans.
After enjoying success at Ivanhoe Elementary School, Esquith moved to the Hobart Boulevard Elementary in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. The dynamic agenda and intensive curriculum that Esquith had previously masterfully applied at Ivanhoe, proved to be unbelievably challenging for his pupils at Hobart. Thus, Esquith was resolved to prove that the students of Koreatown were no less capable than those anywhere else, but rather their expectations had not been set high enough. For the next three decades, Esquith would introduce ground-breaking innovation into the very fabric of elementary education. But that was only the beginning of a long road ahead.
Teaching methods and philosophy
Esquith has a long work day, starting at 6:30 a.m. and not ending until 5 or 6 p.m., and he has said that can't be expected of other teachers. His longer period of time with the students helps him to both cover material that will be on standardized tests and teach topics that he himself is passionate about — Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and baseball (used both to help with physical fitness and mathematics). "The best teachers I know all put themselves in the classroom," he said in a 2007 interview. "If you're a great cook, spend part of your day cooking with the children, and if you love the Chronicles of Narnia, then read that with your children even if it isn't part of the prescribed reading text of your school."
Not only do his students have long school days, they also come in on holidays and are given reading assignments considered well beyond the typical fifth grader's reading level, although Esquith says they are no brighter than typical students.
He also varies teaching methods within individual classrooms to reflect differences in learning styles among students. Esquith also has high expectations of his students: expecting his fifth graders, who are generally from families whose primary language is not English, to study and understand Shakespeare, for example.
Former students continue to help Esquith with current classes. Some come back to discuss their experiences. In a 2007 interview, Esquith said: "A lot of times a young teacher has a vision of what they want their children to be, but the children who grow up in bad neighborhoods [...] can't have that vision. They've never seen it — they don't know what it looks like. But when former students of mine come back and talk to them about coming back from Princeton or U.S.C. or U.C.L.A. or anywhere, the children realize, 'Hey, this could be me.' They really start to see how what they do now affects their life later." The involvement of former students who have done well helps to counter the lack of involvement from parents who are often poor and sometimes illegal immigrants without much education themselves and who aren't able to stimulate their children's intellectual and educational interests and motivate them because of lack of time or knowledge, according to Esquith.
Esquith has said he advises young teachers never to fight with administrators: "Always agree with them. Tell them that, 'You know, I understand where you're coming from', and try to quietly work around the system. I rarely fight with anybody in my school because that doesn't help the children."
Teachers control only one aspect of a child's education, which is also influenced by the involvement of parents, school administrators, teachers unions, testing services and textbook publishers, according to Esquith.
"I've been a teacher now for 27 years," Esquith said in a 2007 interview. "I have still not been to one staff meeting where character was discussed, honestly discussed — how we get children to behave themselves, not because they're afraid of punishment but because they really adopt a code of civil behavior."
In March 2015 Esquith was placed on leave pending an LAUSD investigation into allegations of misconduct in his classroom. Another teacher reported him to the school principal after hearing him read a passage from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which a king is described "prancing out on all fours, naked." Esquith has stated that he jokingly told his students if he could not raise enough money for the annual Shakespearean play they would all have to perform their parts naked like the king in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In June Esquith's lawyer Mark Geragos filed a formal complaint against the district, a precursor to a lawsuit. Geragos says that while the district has not clearly outlined the allegations against Esquith, after an "'initial' investigation was found to be meritless, LAUSD has taken it upon itself to manufacture new ways to attempt to defame Mr. Esquith.” LAUSD superintendent Ramon Cortines has said "there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation." LAUSD later revealed that the investigation had been expanded to include allegations of sexual abuse of a student in the 1970s who was 8 or 9 at the time, when Esquith was a teenager and employed with an afterschool program at Westside Jewish Community Center. The alleged victim said he did not report the abuse to LAUSD until 2006, and the district then reported them to LAPD. No charges were filed at the time. In October 2015 the school board voted unanimously to fire Esquith. Documents later obtained by the Los Angeles Times via the California Public Records Act included documentation of inappropriate email communications with students, among other charges.  Soon after Esquith filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit against the LAUSD on behalf of 2,000 teachers. The lawsuit comes after multiple allegations claiming the school district has fired teachers on the brink of retirement in order to save money on retirement benefits.
- There Are No Shortcuts (2003) ISBN 0-375-42202-1 – published in 2003, this book is a required reading for EDCI 205 (Exploring Teaching as a Career) at Purdue University.
- Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire (2007) ISBN 0-670-03815-6
- Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World (2009; ISBN 0-670-02108-3) – a slim (208-page) book is addressed to parents but organized around a class trip to Dodger Stadium, with sections revolving around concepts including Punctuality, Focus, Decision Making, Taking Pride in What You Do, Selflessness, Humility, Patience, and Teaching Kids to Grow.
- Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans: "No Retreat, No Surrender!" (2013; ISBN 978-0-670-01464-4)
- Trudeau, Michelle, "Inner-City Teacher Takes No Shortcuts to Success", April 26, 2005, story, National Public Radio website, retrieved September 5, 2009
- Interview of Rafe Esquith by Bob Edwards, "Bob Edwards Weekend Hour 2: Part 3 of our series on education reform, featuring teachers, after school programs, and educational researchers" (from about 00:40 to about 13:40 in the podcast ), September 4, 2009 broadcast (but the interview is a rebroadcast, originally broadcast two years before, according to the program), Bob Edwards Show website, retrieved September 5, 2009
- Los Angeles Times (22 June 2015). "Popular teacher Rafe Esquith says L.A. Unified is overreacting to a joke". latimes.com. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
- Los Angeles Times (19 June 2015). "LAUSD superintendent says investigation of popular teacher will not be rushed". latimes.com. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
- Los Angeles Times (25 June 2015). "Abuse claim now part of misconduct inquiry into noted L.A. teacher". latimes.com. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
- "New documents provide details of LAUSD probe that led to firing of famed educator Rafe Esquith". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2015-12-09.
- The Hobart Shakespeareans Official Website
- Rafe Esquith, Alumnus and Teacher / UCLA Spotlight
- PBS Documentary The Hobart Shakespeareans
- Google Video preview of PBS documentary
- Penguin Books entry for "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire"
- Random House (Anchor Books) entry for "There Are No Shortcuts" (excerpt</a>)
- Washington Post "Better Teachers, Not Tinier Classes, Should Be Goal" 2Mar2009
- CBS Evening News "Teacher Inspires Kids To Love Learning" 31Jan2007
- NPR "Rafe Esquith Offers His Fiery Teaching Methods" 22Jan2007
- NPR "Inner-City Teacher Takes No Shortcuts to Success" 26Apr2005