Book Review: There are no Shortcuts by Rafe Esquith

A few weeks ago, after a bitter day “delivering instruction” as opposed to facilitating learning, I heard an NPR report about this supposedly perfect teacher, Rafe Esquith. The report was annoying because it missed all the complications in teaching and the many setbacks every teacher faces. Effective teachers face many failures and continuous challenges, and after all of that most honest teachers don’t take credit for their student’s success, even if they take pride in their achievements and growth.

But, out of curiosity, I requested Esquith’s book from my local library. It turns out, like most great teachers, he doesn’t think he’s a genius, or see himself as manufacturing perfect products. Instead, he talks about the hours he devotes to teaching, using his day, starting at 6 am and ending at 6 pm teaching. On top of that, he teaches weekends and takes students on trips during summer and spring breaks.

The title of the book is the point. Esquith doesn’t see any other way, besides hard work. He also explains that many of his students are “gifted and talented” and at a school with no program designed specifically for them, besides his own classroom. His students, being immigrants, whose families don’t speak English at home, need to work as hard as they do to be competitive beyond school.

The best part of Esquith’s book is his advice to new teachers. The first rule (if I recall quickly, since I’ve returned the book) was to do first, apologize later. That means when you want to do something in the classroom, go ahead and do it. If you set out to seek permission, you may never receive it. He also advises teachers to regard the district as a nuisance and put up with it as such. For example, equity teaches reading through classics. The school and the district expect him to use a basal reader, which is boring and unproductive use of time in his classroom. Every year he smiles and puts the basals in the room, then does what he thinks is best.

For parents, Esquith talks about the mixed up priorities of districts and schools. In his school, teachers are sent to training sessions on using a textbook that are given by textbook salespeople. When teachers were asked to prioritize spending at the school, they chose the school nurse (which we’d all agree is important), then a Xerox machine. Improved textbooks and instructional materials were much further down on the list. The staff chooses teaching assignments, and priority is given to those with connections rather than based on the best fit for each teacher.

My review is rushed: I haven’t discussed Esquith’s qualities of effective teachers, or his most beautiful anecdotes. I think most people would benefit from the book, especially young parents.

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