11/20/2013 01:21 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Be The Person You Want Your Students to Be

By Rafe Esquith

The greatest challenge I face is to teach my students to be honorable in a dishonorable world. I want them to be decent even though they are growing up in an environment surrounded by indecency and a media that celebrates awful behavior. I've had kids who steal and when I talk to their mom, she says, "Oh Rafe, stop it! Everybody steals!" I have to say, "Well, no, everybody doesn't steal. I don't steal."

My job is to show children that there is an alternative way to live one's life. So my approach to teaching is to be the person I want my students to be. Teaching is all about being a role model and I model my own life after Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. There's a seminal scene in that book, and in the movie, when Atticus comes home and Scout is crying. He asks why and she says it's because the kids at school are harassing her and using racial epithets because her dad is defending an African American. "All the kids say you shouldn't be doing it," Scout says. "So why are you?" And Atticus answers: "For a number of reasons, but the most important one is that, if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to tell you what to do anymore."

I really take that to heart. I think the reason my students listen to me is absolute trust. It's not that I am a perfect guy, but the kids know who I am and they know that I am not leaving them.

I have three great loves in the world: baseball, rock 'n' roll, and Shakespeare. None of these are in the California curriculum, but they are all part of my classroom. I do everything the school requires of me but I supplement that with my passions. Listen, I don't expect anyone to duplicate what I do because I am a lunatic, but I think teachers get so busy with the system -- teaching that chapter or this book -- that they lose themselves. I tell them to share their passions with their kids. If you love to garden, then take the kids with you to plant flowers. This is what keeps the fires burning. I think that what young teachers learn from me is to be yourself. Don't forget who you are. All successful teachers bring themselves into the classroom.

I don't have a desk in my classroom. My students are very independent of me and we are best known for our productions of Shakespeare. Although I teach all subjects all day long, after school about 50 to 70 students get together and spend a year -- no exaggeration -- about 50,000 hours of collected work, to put on an unabridged production of Shakespeare. This is not about acting; here the kids are learning how to speak in front of other people, how to work as a team, take chances, sometimes fail and then correct their mistakes. The focus of the class is not about the show; we care about the thousands of rehearsals leading up to the show. The Royal Shakespeare Company has flown in from England to see us.

The kids are never nervous when they perform because they are so well-rehearsed. We do our shows in T-shirts and jeans and we perform in our classroom even though we've been offered places like Carnegie Hall and Broadway. Why would that help the kids learn the language any better? Sir Ian McKellen, who is a big supporter of this class and a huge influence on me, said, "Don't worry about building a set. That doesn't help your children. If you keep things in your classroom, on a bare stage, then the language becomes the star."

These are lessons that stay with my kids. I can't tell you how many high-school teachers have called me and said, "Rafe, we can spot one of your kids before they even open their mouth." They say they can tell my kids by the way they carry and conduct themselves. They're super-focused and organized. This is more important to me than their test scores. These are life skills that carry through to adulthood.

At the end of the year, I am not concerned with the standardized test. Tests don't measure what's really important. I always tell people I'm sure Bernie Madoff did very well on his tests. The real assessment is to see where the students are 10 years from now. Many go to college, but I am not one of those teachers who believes everyone should go to college. I have many happy and successful kids who are mechanics and plumbers, very happy. I think the point is most of my successful students go on to lead extraordinary lives.

From American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom (Welcome Books)
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About Rafe Esquith: The acclaimed author of There Are No Shortcuts, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, Lighting Their Fires, and Real Talk for Real Teachers, he was honored as Disney's National Teacher of the Year, has received Oprah Winfrey's Use Your Life Award, been made a Member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, been awarded the Sondheim Award by the Kennedy Center, and is the only teacher ever to receive the National Medal of Arts. His Hobart Shakespeareans were the subject of a PBS documentary and were featured at a TED conference.