Should You Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire?

According to Rafe Esquith, then yes, you should teach like your hair’s on fire.

This is the name of his book which describes the ‘methods and madness inside room 56’.

Fire symbolises passion and enthusiasm and that’s precisely what Esquith describes when he says,

I thought to myself that if I could care so much about teaching that I didn’t even realize my hair was burning, I was moving in the right direction. From that moment, I resolved to always teach like my hair was on fire.

Rafe’s book is full of liitle gems of wisdom and some big gems of wisdom. I like this quote about learning when he says that “Most children, even very bright ones, need constant review and practice to truly own a concept in grammar, math or science. In schools today, on paper it may appear that kids are learning skills, but in reality they are only renting them, soon to forget what they’ve learned over the weekend or summer vacation.”

How true is that? Children rent concepts, they don’t own them. That’s spot-on and hence the drive for mastery. Here’s another gem, this time about resourcing. Fancy stuff for the classroom is nice to have but it’s the adult in the room that is going to make the difference, not an iPad: “Would you rather have your child in a room with the best equipment in the world with an average teacher or an empty room with Socrates?”

Rafe also makes a cracking observation in relation to data. So many teachers compare and contrast one pupil with another and yet what a waste of time that really is.

He says, “Never compare one student’s test score to another’s. Always measure a child’s progress against her past performance. There will always be a better reader, mathematician, or baseball player. Our goal is to help each student become as special as she can be as an individual – not to be more special than the kid sitting next to her.”

With so many nuggets to choose from, choosing one to share is pretty hard but there is a chapter called Rocket Man which Rafe devotes to the teaching of science. In this chapter there is a section about how failure is good and this can apply right across the curriculum. He describes how a visiting bunch of teachers were watching Rafe’s class building rockets and joined in the action but not in a good way. As the children were building, the teachers intervened to stop the children from making construction errors – Rafe stepped in and told the teachers to leave the children to it. Here’s a transcript of what was said:

Guest: (whispering) You don’t understand, Rafe. They’re doing it wrong. 

Rafe: I understand.

Guest: Their wings are crooked.

Rafe: Yes, they are.

Guest: The launch lug is glued too closely to the nose.

Rafe: That’s true.

Guest: And you’re just going to sit there?

Rafe: Yes, I am.

Guest: But their rockets won’t fly!

Rafe: Not at first…

Guest: But…

Rafe: And then the group will have to figure out why their rocket won’t fly. They’ll have to come back to class and figure it out for themselves. It’s what scientists do all the time.

How many times do we step in and avert a catastrophe when actually what we are really doing is stopping children from learning and problem-solving for themselves? Rafe makes the point that as teachers we just have to learn when to shut up and leave the kids alone.

And finally….

He also gives us a warning and one that many of us will recognise, especially in the social media world of edu-celebrities. He says,

There are so many charlatans in the world of education. They teach for a couple of years, come up with a few clever slogans, build their websites, and hit the lecture circuit. In this fast-food-society, simple solutions to complex problems are embraced far too often. We can do better. I hope that people who read this book realize that true excellence takes sacrifice, mistakes, and enormous amounts of effort. After all, there are no shortcuts.

Take time to read Rafe’s book and think about how much fire there is in your belly and in and on your head.

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