Gimme Some Truth: Teaching Advice

This excerpt from Rafe Esquith's Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire will instruct you on how to create a save haven for your students in your classroom. He will explain how to remove the element of fear from your classroom so you and your students have a more enjoyable learning experience.
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Updated on: May 11, 2007
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I know this because I've been there. I've fallen into the same trap. The simple truth is that most classrooms today are managed by one thing and one thing only: fear.

The teacher is afraid: afraid of looking bad, of not being liked, of not being listened to, of losing control. The students are even more afraid: afraid of being scolded and humiliated, of looking foolish in front of peers, of getting bad grades, of facing their parents' wrath. John Lennon got it right in "Working Class Hero" when he sang of being "tortured and scared...for twenty-odd years."

This is the issue that overshadows all others in the world of education. It is the matter of classroom management.

If your class is not in order, nothing good will follow. There will be no learning. The kids will not read, write, or calculate better.

Children will not improve their critical thinking. Character cannot be built. Good citizenship will not be fostered.

There is more than one way to run a successful classroom—from using the philosophy of Thoreau to the philosophy of Mussolini. Over the last twenty-five years, I've tried practically everything to deal with the often maddening behavior of children in a school environment that accepts graffiti-covered walls and urine-soaked bathroom floors as normal.

Visitors to Room 56 never come away most impressed with the academic ability of the children, the style in which I present lessons, or the cleverness of the wall decorations. They come away shaking their heads over something else: the culture of the classroom. It's calm. It is incredibly civil. It's an oasis. But something is missing. Ironically, Room 56 is a special place not because of what it has, but because of what it is missing: fear.

In my early years, I actually planned to frighten the kids the first day of school. I wanted to make sure they knew I was boss. Some of my colleagues did the same, and we shared our supposed successes in getting the kids in order. Other classes were out of control, and we foolishly congratulated one another on our quiet classrooms, orderly children, and smooth-running days.

Then one day, many years ago, I watched a fantastic video featuring a first-rate special education teacher who told a story about his son and the Boston Red Sox. He had inherited a priceless baseball signed by all the players of the legendary 1967 Sox. When his young son asked to play catch with him, of course he warned the boy that they could never use that ball. Upon being asked why, the teacher realized that Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg, and the rest of the 1967 Sox meant nothing to his son. Instead of taking the time to explain, however, he simply told the boy they could not use the ball "because it had writing all over it."

A few days later, the boy once again asked his father to play catch. Then his father reminded him that they could not use the ball with the writing, his little boy informed him that he had solved the problem: He had licked off all the writing!

Of course the father was ready to kill his own son. On second thought, however, he realized his boy had done nothing wrong. And from that day forward, the teacher carried the unsigned baseball with him everywhere he went. It reminded him that, when teaching or parenting, you must always try to see things from the child's point of view and never use fear as a shortcut for education.

Painful though it was, I had to admit that many children in my class were behaving the way they were because they were afraid. Oh, lots of kids liked the class and quite a few learned all sorts of wonderful lessons. But I wanted more. We spend so much time trying to raise reading and math scores. We push our kids to run faster and jump higher. Shouldn't we also try to help them become better human beings? In fact, all these years later, I've recognized that by improving the culture of my classroom, the ordinary challenges are navigated far more easily. It's not easy to create a classroom without fear. It can take years. But it's worth it. Here are four things I do to ensure the class remains a place of academic excellence without resorting to fear to keep the kids in line.

Read more of Rafe's advice!
Fire in the Classroom
Replace Fear with Trust
Children Depend on Us, So Be Dependable
Discipline Must Be Logical
You Are a Role Model
More Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire Resources

Excerpted from

Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire
Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire
Rafe Esquith
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire by Rafe Esquith. Copyright © Rafe Esquith, 2007.

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