Review of “Real Talk for Real Teachers” by Rafe Esquith

I love reading books about how best to educate kids, in part because I care very strongly about the issue, and in part because I like to feel inadequate.

Rafe Esquith, as you may know, was one of the inspirations for the KIPP schools (KIPP stands for The Knowledge Is Power Program). And indeed, he begins this book with the mottos he uses in his classroom – “The Ten Commandments of Room 56” – the first of which is “Our mission: Be nice. Work hard.” This is the mantra adopted by KIPP. [You can read about KIPP magnet schools in Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America by Jay Mathews, who considers Esquith to be one of the best classroom teachers in the U.S. He is in an excellent position to know: Mathews is an award-winning education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, and is the author of seven books about education.]


In this book (Esquith has written several others), he explains that he has been trying “to help ten-year-old children see that they can control their own destinies and make their lives extraordinary.” He insists that all kids are not created equal – nevertheless, you can give them the opportunity to be the best they can be.

He wants teachers not to doubt themselves because teaching is a hard job and it takes time to become a “master” teacher. He advises not getting hung up on movie miracle teachers, because this is not real life [except for Rafe, I would add!]. He claims he’s just an “ordinary guy” who persevered until he got good at what he does. He warns there will be plenty of bad times, and adduces examples from his own career.

Best of all, he gives plenty of classroom tips, that I think are useful for parents (and/or grandparents) as well as teachers. After enumerating some of the rules he gives to kids, he stresses the importance of clarifying why to kids, encouraging them to come up with the reasons themselves so they see the logic of the rules. He also stresses the importance of being a role model. How can you expect children to be nice if you aren’t nice to them? Or to be neat, if you or your classroom or your house is sloppy?

Rafe Esquith

Rafe Esquith

Importantly, he tells how he integrates the school system’s requirements into his more interesting lesson plans, and how he explains to students the necessity for learning what will be on the tests as well as the more “joyous” learning he hopes to share with them.

He advises that if you can’t do or be all the things you want to for the kids, find expert helpers, either from other teachers in your school, friends, alumni, or local experts in any area you need help with: music, dance, sports, whatever. Kids will learn from your willingness to employ help and not maintain you yourself can do it all. He has drawn on the skills of others to great effect for his students’ annual performances of the plays of Shakespeare, and he provides an excellent list of all of the myriad benefits there are to doing these plays with young children.

Finally, he talks about the many factors that embitter teachers, and offers words of encouragement. Basically his advice can be summarized by his motto: “No retreat. No surrender.”

But we don’t have to take his word for the impact his teaching methods have had on students. He directs us to his website and there are lots of resources there, including videos of performances by his students. I strongly recommend two of them in particular: one is the musical performance of Riders on the Storm for Macbeth (the students integrate contemporary music into their Shakespeare plays), and the second, embedded below, is a recitation of a letter home from a Civil War soldier to his wife. The young boy who performs (this was before the Supreme Court in Washington) is so good that even he is crying as he proceeds through the letter, and I bet you will be too!

Evaluation: This is yet another inspirational book about – I don’t care if you claim you’re “normal” Rafe – an exceptional teacher who makes a huge difference in the lives of his kids. [Some other good books along these lines, besides the KIPP story cited above, include Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year by Esmé Raji Codell and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough.] There is a lot of great advice in this book, even for those of us who are less exceptional, and whether you are a teacher or a parent or a team leader at your job.

And even if you think you aren’t interested in reading this book? Go check out those videos! I bet you’ll change your mind!

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Viking, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), 2013


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11 Responses to Review of “Real Talk for Real Teachers” by Rafe Esquith

  1. OMG – That young boy brought tears to my eyes –amazing.

  2. Beth F says:

    WOW (my reaction to the video)

  3. Wow! I’m sending my sister the link to your review.

  4. I feel strongly about education too but have to admit that I am so glad to be done with dealing with school systems. The boy in that video is amazing!!

  5. sandynawrot says:

    I’m speechless. That rarely happens. You know I’ve heard about this guy before, and after having read “Fire in the Ashes” and seen how BADLY the education system failed those children, I sure they would have had a Rafe. I could never be a teacher…I don’t have the patience. But there are so many teachers out there that should have not chosen this career. They do not help kids, they hurt them. It makes it twice as hard for the other teachers that want to make a difference to actually do just that.

  6. caitemaire says:

    I think the most important element to successful students are involved parents with strong expectations and lot of support.
    sadly many kids do not have that.

  7. Vicki says:

    Can’t praise enough the teachers who are dedicated to being the best teacher they can be, parents who are involved and students who want to learn.
    Here’s My Post

  8. holy cow what a kid! thank you for sharing the video! and recommending the book ~ buying this one for my sister-in-law who teaches 3rd grade

  9. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    I will be sure to share this with my teacher friends!

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    I’m afraid if I read these books by exceptional teachers it will make me want to actually use my teaching degree 😉

  11. bookingmama says:

    Our actions really do affect children a great deal, don’t they?

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