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My Hair Is Not on Fire

When the summer began, Lee Kolbert made a call for recommended summer reading for educators by educators. One of the first titles that streamed across my PLN was Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire by Rafe Esquith. I picked up the book at a local bookstore and started reading write away. I was initially impressed and even blogged on the first chapters of the book here. I was excited about what it set up to be and how it was playing out, but something changed for me as I continued to read.

I have struggled over the blog post because there are lots of things I want to say about my reactions to the book, but I do not want to undermine what  Esquith does with his students. I think the dedication he displays to the children in his room is remarkable and admirable, and his students are very lucky to have a teacher who is devoted to help them develop as learners and leaders. Esquith offers great ideas for engaging students in reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and the arts. He even talks about teaching students about testing as a process, rather than a stressor. That being said, there were several moments in the book that I found myself questioning what was going on – the how’s of it all.

How does Esquith get students to arrive at school at 7:00 AM and stay until hours past the official end of the day?

How do students get to school and get home?balancing act

How do his students feel who don’t want to or can’t participate in all of these extra events?

How do the students in other classes feel who aren’t having these experiences?

How do his students react to their teachers when they leave him and move on to other grades?

How do the students balance their lives outside of school?

How does Esquith balance his life outside of school?

Throughout his book, I wondered how he had the time. I worried about new teachers or those getting ready to enter the teaching profession might feel when reading this book. I give a lot of myself to teaching and to my students, but even I was overwhelmed. If you are not putting on plays, teaching how to play musical instruments, teaching from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm, driving kids on cross-country college tours, facilitating home-based film clubs and organizing tours of the nation’s capital, you are still an amazing teacher. As this post evolves in my own head and on the screen, I am finally figuring out how I can love this book and dislike it at the same time. Only a small percentage of us can do what Rafe Esquith does. I am not one of them, but what can I do?

  1. I can know what my students need. Esquith recognizes that his students may not ever get the opportunity to “know what they don’t know.” We, as teachers, have the unique chance to open our students’ eyes to a world they may not know exists beyond their neighborhood. While I may not be able to make a cross-country trip with them, I can emerge them in great literature, take them on virtual trips, and connect them with others world-wide through technology.
  2. I can find a way. Esquith set up his Hobart Shakepearans as a non-profit organizations to raise money for their expenses and trips. If he can do this, I can certainly fill out the occasional grant application to offer a new experience to my students. I can encourage parents and community members to put their monies where their mouths are. I can communicate regularly with my elected officials to keep funding and adding more funding to public education.
  3. I can encourage service-learning. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire Esquith highlights his students’ holiday meal service. Even if this is too much of an undertaking initially, take from it the idea that you are providing a priceless lesson for your students by teaching them the value of service. The experience of service-learning cannot be written in a lesson plan or numerated through goals and objectives. It touches the heart, and lessons that do that will last much longer than any science lab you will ever do. Collect cans for a food drive. Sing holiday carols at a nursing home. Write letters to troops serving overseas. Find a way to make students dig deep into their hearts, not just their parents’ wallets.
  4. I can let students have it. It may be your classroom. It may be your materials. But it is their learning. Allowing students to own their work and to share it with others in their classroom, school and community will instill in them pride for learning. They will learn discipline and hard work. They will learn problem solving conflict resolution. If you you hold so tightly to the control of your classroom, everything you try to accomplish will stay within your walls. If you let your students have it, they can take it with them.

So, no, I don’t teach like my hair is on fire. I don’t really think that Rafe Esquith does either. He teaches like his heart is on fire, and that’s the greatest thing a teacher can offer his/her students. And when you are reading about astounding things that others are doing, don’t get overwhelmed by the how’s. Focus on the why’s. When you do that, you will find inspiration to light the fires of your students.

Photo from Flickr: Balancing Act by SashaW

22 Responses

  1. I, too, struggled with that whole notion for many of the same reasons. Thanks for the insights and a positive way to address it!

  2. Great post! A colleague told me that she thought I taught like my hair was on fire. (I hadn’t read the book but had seen a documentary about Esquith.) Her comment (which I’m sure was intended as a compliment) made me a little uncomforrtable. I think the last question you pose in your pose (How does he balance his life outside of school?) is the most important one to me. I’m at a point in my life where I could throw myself totally into school if I wanted to but I don’t think that be healthy for me or a healthy model for my students. I have similar reservations about Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers fame. I’m glad she found a model that worked for her and her students, but I don’t think it’s something we should expect every teacher to match.

  3. Thank you for posting this. Our district gave teachers a work day that is a half an hour shorter than last year in place of a raise. Jobs were saved, so I’m not complaining, but what is happened is this battle to put in the extra hours anyway. The extra half hour for me means that I don’t have to pay early care costs at preschool. I take the half hour, but saying that out loud gets me some dissapproving looks from collegues (those without kids, usually). I should point out that my school admins don’t pressure me one way or another, but sometime the distticts seems to expect a lot more than what they give.

    My point is I, too, am divided. I don’t have funds to by all the books I need (either school funds or personal funds). I don’t have to time or energy to give to excurricular (would like to spend some quality time with kids). I get irritated when I read about teachers holding up what they give freely as what others should be expected to do. While Esquith may not do it, others may look at his example then look at me.

    I give what I can and do what I can. I give it freely and I do it with love. I’m good with that.

  4. I appreciate that you read the book and were willing to share your reservations. We don’t want kids to just buy into every idea because it was written in a best-selling idea either. 🙂

    The critical question for me is also, “How does (name any guru in education) balance his life outside of school?” I already DO work many days from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and although I believe what fills my time is important, I’m definitely not a better person for being obsessed with work, even if it might be noble and generous work. I joke that summer’s not worth much if you nearly have a nervous breakdown in November from the stress and the hours! LOL

    I look at the famous educators of our day. I look at their impressive CV’s and wonder – how do they find the time? Don’t they have a job? How do they manage a classroom and do all these other professional development things? Do they sleep? What would their spouse & kids say? Do their familes and friends feel neglected? Is that person well-rounded? Fit? Healthy? Many are. I wish I knew their secrets.

    Anyway, we need to LIVE like our hearts are on fire, and not just in the classroom. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I’m so glad to hear I am not the only one with hesitations about what Mr. Esquith shares. I just finished the book a few weeks ago and found myself thinking I’ll never be a truly great teacher if this is what it takes. I’m a mom of 4 boys and that is my most important job. Before kids, I spent a lot more time at school. But the days pass so quickly with my own children (my oldest will be a teenager in 2 weeks!) that I can’t justify sacrificing all of the time I have with them to be with other people’s children.

    I like your analogy of teaching like your heart is on fire. That I think I can do! I never stop searching for answers to reach kids, I never stop planning in my head. I think often about the kids in my room, even when I’m not there. We recently moved to NC from CA and we are going back to visit. Through Facebook, I have several get togethers planned with my former students. I’m so excited to see them! I love being a teacher.

    Thanks for the affirmation and reminder that teaching really is a work of the heart, but that there remain other important priorities in our lives. We are people first, teachers second. And that is okay!

  6. Have you ever smelled burning hair? Its not the kind of learning experience I seek.

    When I read Esquith’s book a couple of years ago, I had many of the same questions as you. Now that I’ve gotten to know you and see how much you do for your students and your PLN, I think you are more like Esquith than you realize.

    What I finally came to realize is that no one else can be Rafe Esquith. None of us have his combination of skills, interests and circumstances to allow us to follow his inspiring lead. I used to feel guilty and inadequate in comparison to him. Now I feel guilty and inadequate compared to you. I’m not sure, but that may be progress.

    The key, as you so clearly point out, is to do what one can as well as one can do it; to focus on the students and their needs; and to continually try to improve. If you do that you have succeeded even if you don’t need to rush out seeking an extinguisher and a wig.

  7. Kelly,

    Fantastic post. As you know, I am currently reading TLYHOF and I tweeted out to talk with anyone else who is reading or has read it AND is a classroom teacher. Thank you for sharing your thoughts; they are valuable.
    When I first started reading the book, I was amazed by his ability to provide an educational rationale for EVERY thing he does in his classroom. It seemed as though many ideas could be replicated by others. And I thought “every classroom teacher needs to read this.” But as I continued to read, I started thinking about some of the same questions you raised. In addition, I wondered how students were selected for his classroom. What impact did that have on those who were not selected? Is that an issue in his school? What effect does that one year have on later grades? Are the lessons learned permanent? What happens when students struggle in particular academic areas? What happens when students choose not to participate in a particular activity due to circumstances beyond their control? Is it really possible to achieve everything he wrote about, in one school year? And if you adapt his methods for your particular teaching situation will they be as effective? So many questions.

    Nevertheless, there are many positives to be gained from his work and you have highlighted these beautifully and shared the vital lessons you have learned. Finding a way, and relinquishing control are the two that especially resonated with me.

    I look forward to the book you will write. There is no one way when it comes to highly effective teaching; your book will offer another alternative which allows for work/play/family balance.

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments. I had some apprehension when I read this book because it seemed that everyone I knew was gushing over it. I thought maybe I was missing something. When I did overseas missions training in college before a trip to Guatemala, we frequently used a phrase that I often think of today. It was “It’s not right or wrong. It’s just different.” Teaching is that way. When a book or a method gains a lot of attention, we must remember to hold fast to what we know to be true – it’s about the kids.

    @Deven – Yes, burning hair smells disgusting. I’m with you there. I can’t imagine why you (or anyone) would feel inadequate to me, for I am only what my PLN, family & friends support me to be. You are a huge part of that. I will humbly thank you for the compliment.

    @Karen – It’s funny how we have had almost identical questions. I wonder if it’s our backgrounds with EC that make us focus so diligently on those who are “left behind.” I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as you finish.

    @ReadingTeach @HRMason – Being a mom and a teacher is a struggle because we have so many children, don’t we? You are both models for me of balance. Thank you.

    @Suzanne – I’m so glad you found me and I look forward to building a relationship in our PLN on Twitter. I can already tell I have much to learn with you.

    @MsStewart & @xiousgeonz – Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your insights and thoughts on the book.

  9. Kelly, I think you bring up valuable points here. I know that when I was single, working with kids from 7am until 7pm was routine many days. Now that I’m married with a house and dog of my own, I’ve had to cut back on my hours considerably because I have an obligation to my family first. I don’t think it makes me less of a teacher–it forces me to be more focused in my efforts.

    I think using the book as inspiration to keep working on behalf of our students is a great way to see it. Like everything else in life, if you look to others to measure yourself, you will always find someone who will make you feel like you are less. But if you seek others for ideas and inspiration, you will always find someone to push you to be your best.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Well said! I felt the same things after reading this book and I have enjoyed the way you framed it so that we can take away some positive points and not feel like losers for not putting every last second of our lives into teaching. Thanks! 🙂

  11. […] —> Added, a few hours later. Look what just showed up in my feed reader from Kelly Hines. I had to include it here, it’s so timely. There are no accidents. So, no, I don’t teach […]

  12. “And when you are reading about astounding things that others are doing, don’t get overwhelmed by the how’s. Focus on the why’s.” THANK YOU for this! It helps me right now in so many ways.

  13. I have said this recently. If you were to pick any person in the profession of education you could probably give them the title of Rumplestiltskin. Educators more than almost any other profession spin straw into gold.

    Having said that, I totally get your hesitation about this book. I want to read it now that you have so effectively pointed out the inherent conflict with our heroes. We watch teachers who do miraculous things but get disheartened and disillusioned because we can’t do it.

    I told a mentor of mine once that I didn’t think you should have to be a hero to teach. He disagreed he said every teacher is a hero. My reply well then we should all have to martyr ourselves to be teachers. I still believe that. I see to many to to much for too little. I don’t ask that teacher be on the leading edge of salaries and compensation and support in the world, but could we at least be firmly in the middle?

    Thanks for a super thoughtful post!

  14. One thing that bothered me about the book was how he could be quite insulting when discussing other teachers. This passage infuriated me: “To fight the problem, we now have “literacy coaches” at schools. Most of these “experts” are former classroom teachers who never accomplished much with their own students.” It struck me as surprisingly presumptive and arrogant.

  15. @Jorgie – it is difficult being a “hero” to our students, and I think that all teachers want to be that for their kids. I also think we put so much pressure on ourselves to create that persona that we sometimes miss what kids need most – positive attention to their needs. I’ve known many students who, of course, would have liked a trip cross-country. Yet, they would have been just as touched by an invitation to eat lunch in the classroom with a peer of their choice just to chat.

    @gls – It’s interesting that you mention that because I’ve heard others make similar statements. My friend Todd was even put off by how he talked about other “Celebrity Teachers” like Ron Clark.

  16. I asked the same question: How do they do it? Rafe, Erin, Ron Clark… And forget just personally, but how do they get away with it as far as their union is concerned?

    A lot of your questions about Rafe’s personal life and how he came upon his philosophy are answered in his first book, There Are No Shortcuts. It is awesome. It helped me remember all the reasons why I became a teacher. Now I have to find a way to ignore the idiocy of the bureaucracy and just TEACH.

  17. My doubts and hesitations a bout the heroic individual teacher narrative is beautifully discussed in chapter 8 of Tom Newkirk’s book: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones.

    This extract mentions Esquith’s memoir:

    In an essay, “It’s All About the Kids! Or Is It?” PeterTaubman (2008) cites an incident from Rafe Esquith’s teaching memoir,Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire: Methods and Madness Inside Room 56
    (2007). Esquith explains that the title of the book comes from an incidentinvolving a science experiment:
    In trying to get [the student’s] alcohol burner to light, I set myhair on fire and didn’t even know it until the kids startedscreaming. But as ridiculous as it was, I actually thought, if Icould care so much I didn’t even know my hair was on fire, Iwas moving in the right direction as a teacher—I realized thatyou have to ignore all that crap, and the children are the only
    thing that matter. (2)

    This is a teaching moment seemingly made for the movies, a depiction of exemplary self-sacrifice. But Taubman notes the disturbing paradox of this story—the teacher is heroic and at the same time selfless, larger(and smaller) than life: Literally immolating himself, Mr. Esquith clearly believes sacrificing oneself for the children is essential to good teaching. . . .On one level his life is clearly worth less than the lives of his students. On another level, however, like so many teachers in these narratives of sacrifice, salvation, and rescue, he emerges as heroic. Fantasies of grandiosity and feelings of worthlessness unite in the commitment to sacrificing oneself for the students, who are all that matter. (2008, 96)

    From a psychoanalytic perspective, these narratives present a very narcissistic image of teaching, an inflated self-presentation, even selfadmiration— that leaves teachers vulnerable to psychological pain
    when they receive criticism or experience difficulty (or feel emotions) incompatible with this self-image. And to the extent that, as a culture, we treat these depictions of selfless teaching as an ideal, those (like me)who fall short also feel inadequate…

  18. […] on the why’s. When you do that, you will find inspiration to light the fires of your students. (Kelly Hines) Be genuinely interested, caring, kind, and loving to your students. It’s that simple. It’s […]

  19. […] on the why’s. When you do that, you will find inspiration to light the fires of your students. (Kelly Hines) Be genuinely interested, caring, kind, and loving to your students. It’s that simple. It’s […]

  20. Immerse, not emerge.

  21. As a student of Rafe’ s classroom I can shed light on some of your doubts and concerns. Every time I try to share my experience with some one outside Room 56, I am met with the usual skepticism. Once they see the kids perform their annual play, all those doubts are washed away forever.

    Rafe is a great teacher, but what about those who were never able to secure Sir Ian McKellen’s patronage, or who weren’t read Shakespeare to as a child by your extraordinary father? I am absolutely terrified that after college, my dreams of teaching like Rafe may come up a wee bit short.

    One day I hope to have a classroom in LAUSD. With the school district currently in absolute chaos, it may take me longer than it did Rafe to land a job there. And when I think about the hundreds of poor families in my native Koreatown, I know it will be a uphill battle all the way to fight the mediocrity of L.A. Unified. As Rafe said once, “Every day I go inside that classroom to fight a fucking war that I will never win.”

    He doesn’t quit. He didn’t quit when the school district ripped off his quarter of a million dollars lighting system that he used for the plays (without reimbursement by the way.) He didn’t quit when our Saturday class of former students shrunk year by year as my old peers fell to gangs, laziness or just didn’t care about his dedication and quit on themselves.

    And I won’t give up either. Never. Because my immigrant parents didn’t while crossing the desert, and because Rafe didn’t give up on me on his darkest days. Because Rafe taught me that quitters never win, and winners never quit.
    While reading most of these comments I recalled a quote he shared with me before I went of to high school. “Life is not fair. Get used to it.”

    As for your realist approach to match Rafe’s accomplishments, I can relate. I fear that I may not be the Rafe Esquith for my students, as he was for me. What can we do about this at the end of the day? Remember, always remember – the classroom will never be like the Hollywood bullshit of “Dead Poets Society”. There is no glamour in teaching. It is hard labor, perhaps harder than most would assume. But remember, the hard makes it great.

    So I conclude with saying thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, all of you wonderful teachers, for not giving up and lighting the fires of your children. I am humbled by the dedication and attention you provide your students with. You are making this world a better place!!!!

  22. […] read the book and what they thought of it. It inspired me to finally pick it up. She had written a blog post reflecting on her experience reading the book, but I told myself I would wait to read it until I […]

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