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Thoughts from Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire.

January 17, 2011

I just finished reading Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, by Rafe Esquith. He’s really challenging a lot of basic assumptions about our modern educational system. More importantly, he shows that his ideas work. Although the author is certainly a lightning rod, his great results speak for themselves. A few thoughts ran through my head as I read his book:

o   It’s amazing what 12 hour days, and a huge budget can do. Esquith has clearly campaigned hard for grant money, and probably has a few patrons that give him a large budget to work with. Yes, the kids help raise money, but there appears to be a LOT of money in that classroom. Lighting rigs, musical instruments, lab equipment, sports gear, – I had little cash registers going off in my head as I read the book. Likewise, many of his students are the children of immigrants, and show up to work 10-12 hour days and occasional Saturdays. I only wish every family in America had this dedication to education, and every classroom had access to his level of funds. Hats off to him for doing what it took to get the budget he has, and to get the commitment from his families. These are exactly the kinds of investment and paradigm changes folks like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has been calling for. Now, how can we help other teachers do the same?

o   I can’t help but mention that his casual trust building leadership style is great, if it works for you. Alas, many teachers in many classrooms can’t really implement his recipe in their classroom. Primarily, Esquith has built a culture of trust in his classroom, and as someone who’s studied leadership, I applaud him. Unfortunately, the style he uses won’t be a style that all teachers can credibly use. Likewise, not all classrooms will respond to Esquith’s methods, even if perfectly executed. Mind you, this isn’t a critical flaw; a leader needs to be able to adapt her style to new environments and organizations. So, though I don’t see this as a recipe book, I still like it as a guide. Leadership gurus generally agree that you can take the broad ideas and find a way to work them into your style over time. Some of the results the author gets are in no small part due to his personal skill and charisma. However, I think there’s a lot for all of us to learn here.

o   He is correct that many classrooms get run, either deliberately or indirectly, by fear. This fear based student-teacher relationship is something I’ve seen the best tutors and teachers change. I appreciate that he belled that cat, as it needed to be said. If aware of that fear, many teachers can change the relationship, and that would be a good thing in my humble opinion. It’s a long tough process though, and it is an even harder change for older teachers with a more established style, as old habits die hard.

o   Esquith has done a great job of integrating the curriculum of his classroom. He describes some great transition and integration methods. He challenges the notion that you have to pare down the curriculum to the bare core in order to make your scores for state standardized tests. In fact, he has 5th graders learning Shakespeare and running their own classroom sized economy. He treats standardized tests as scenery more than the focal point of his classroom. I wish more teachers could get back to this, though it doesn’t seem it will be getting any easier.

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