Teach Like it Matters, Learn 'Cause it Does

Joy Berry

     ... educator. When Ms. Berry was appointed to Georgia’s State Board of Education, she retired as executive director of the Georgia Human Relations Commission in 2000 which she had created at the request of the Governor.  Formerly a classroom teacher and principal in her native New York City, on moving to Atlanta in the 1970s, Ms. Berry served as an education specialist in the Office of Planning and Budget. Widely honored for her many accomplishments, Ms. Berry earned her undergraduate degree from Hunter College and a graduate degree from Pace University where she was also an adjunct professor and served on their Board of Examiners.

Reading is education’s key, yet more is required -- the LOVE of reading is what children need if they are to meet the larger goal of learning, say Joy Berry and Rafe Esquith. Both master educators focus on inner-city public school children and agree -- learning starts with the culture of a classroom and reading cannot be just a “subject”.

Mr. Esquith uses the plays of William Shakespeare to reject the larger culture’s mediocrity and to teach English in his Los Angeles inner-city classroom full of 5th grade students.

“They look at our wall of fame -- jocks, artists, quiet kids -- and they see all those names on the wall. The one thing (the people whose pictures are on the wall) have in common? They all love to read. It is the absolute. It’s more important than all the other subjects in school put together, it’s everything.”

“It is the foundation,” says Ms. Berry, “The foundation! What I appreciate when (Mr. Esquith) talks about reading? He says the love of reading. Because that's the heart of it. Reading so often has become rote. There's no sense to it. There's no feeling to it. If you can get from a page something that you can internalize, you're beginning to love the subject,” says this native New Yorker, public school teacher, principal and administrator, a visionary former member of Georgia’s State Board of Education.

A good teacher also must be a good student, she reminds us.

“You are growing and you are developing as effectively as your children do. What we find – and the research bears it out – is that many in the teaching profession do not continue to grow. They may have some academic training but the actual internal kind of development, does not happen.”

Along with unquenchable idealism, both are also deeply realistic about the challenges teachers face, especially in public schools.

“I fail all the time!” says Mr. Esquith. “I hate Hollywood movies about teachers -- everybody lives happily ever after. Young teachers go home feeling like failures when they haven't reached a student and I says, ‘Look. I'm a good teacher, I've had a lot of success, but I fail all the time. There are kids I don't reach, even though I've given everything I have. You shouldn't beat yourself up for failing. What you beat yourself up over, I think, is giving up! We tell our children not to give up, so how can we give up?’ Teachers have to be the people we want our students to be.

“People come to me and they go, ‘Rafe, how could you do the same thing for 25 years?’ And I say, ‘I couldn't! I'd go out of my mind doing the same thing for 25 years!’ I love the challenge of growing with those children and finding new ways to unlock their minds to great ideas. Each year, maybe add one thing to your classroom to make it a little bit more exciting and if you do that for ten years? Then you're going to have a thrilling classroom.”

“Too often,” Ms. Berry says, “We believe that if we give teachers professional development, staff development, they will understand what should happen in the classroom. The very beginning is a culture -- a culture that is conducive to teaching and learning; they both must occur in the classroom.”

“Absolutely!” Mr. Esquith concludes. “One of the reasons I've been able to develop that culture is that I watched other great teachers. What's happening in teaching today is (teachers) have become so isolated -- they’re in their little boxes, they're not seeing what needs to be seen. (We need to) find a way to get young teachers to observe great teachers so they too can create magic in their classrooms.”

[This Program was recorded January 14, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]               57:45

Rafe Esquith


     ... educator and author. Mr. Esquith articulates his winning approach to nurturing inner city students in Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire and There Are No Shortcuts. For more than 2 decades, Mr. Esquith has taught, and continues to teach, 5th grade students at Hobart Elementary School in his native Los Angeles. His “Hobart Shakespeareans” are widely acclaimed, enhancing their English by performing the plays of Shakespeare in the classroom. A regular on television, radio and in print, among Ms. Esquith’s many awards, he is the only teacher ever to receive America’s National Medal of Arts and Queen Elizabeth made him a Member of the British Empire.

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Related Links:

Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire is published by Viking and There Are No Shortcuts is an Anchor Book .

... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


Joy Berry and Rafe Esquith have lit paths to a brighter future for countless young people. Both of them are admirable in their professional as well as private roles as champions for the human right of ALL children to receive a worthwhile education. Along with the many whose lives are the better for these two educators' work -- and in recognition of the unsung heroes and heroines of public education of whom we will never hear -- they have our own boundless gratitude for enhancing individual lives, and for strengthening our public schools, the bedrocks of democracy.

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