“An Actual Classroom Teacher”

The headline for this blog is also Rafe Esquith’s identifier on the cover of Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire (TLYHIOF). He is “an actual classroom teacher,” which affords credibility with a teacher audience. Throughout the book he uses second person, suggesting “you” (teachers) can try his activities in “your” classrooms.

This is an inspiring, valuable book for teachers. I am delighted with the description of a classroom that models and teaches all six virtues, instead of three virtues and three vices. Thanks Mr. Esquith. You have created a beautiful classroom for your students.

But this blog discusses what is not beautiful about the book.  It explains why hundreds of thousands of public educators claim teaching is an applied social science, even though memorable ones practice it as an art.  In other words, Mr. Esquith is a memorable, artistic teacher, but his book suggests that teaching is an applied social science.

I understand why TLYHIOF is a litany of creative classroom activities. Teachers praise books that are “practical,” meaning they describe activities teachers can take directly into the classroom. And I envision the publisher pushing Esquith to provide detailed descriptions. Teachers are the audience, and a publisher’s job is to give an audience what it wants.

But even a creative teacher like Esquith can’t have it both ways. He has to decide if his paradigm for teaching is aesthetic or social scientific. It cannot be both because paradigms are incommensurable. If teaching is an art, teachers look inside themselves to improve their art.  If teaching is an applied social science, teachers look outside themselves to improve their application of methods and materials. TLYHIOF contradicts itself as the author describes how he does the first and suggests teachers should do the second.

Esquith promotes the social science paradigm wherever he suggests teachers should try his ideas, methods, or materials. Although this paradigm is most often invoked by policymakers pointing to “research-based” methods and materials, it is also invoked in an author’s suggestion that teachers should adopt his approach (should look outside themselves). The effect is always the same.  The art of teaching is diminished.

If Esquith regarded teaching as an art, he would insist that teachers look inside themselves. He would recognize that his classroom is a powerful experience for young people because he is inspired to create something beautiful for them. And his book would explain that others worthy of being “an actual classroom teacher” look inside themselves to create beautiful classrooms for their students, too.

Still, some may ask, “What is the problem with a book that describes creative classroom activities?”

The problem is that, if artistic teachers don’t define teaching as an art, nobody will. And if teaching is not defined as an art, we’ll have fewer teachers like Rafe Esquith. That is the problem.

Esquith’s classroom activities are creative, beautiful, educational, and inspiring. But his book fails to explain that all memorable, artistic teachers inspire their students, not so much with specific lessons, but with their commitment to their students and the art of teaching. Creative lessons and teaching naturally follow from the art of teaching, not from doing what one creative teacher does, or even from doing what hundreds of creative teachers do.  Why teachers teach is more important than either the what they teach or the how they teach.  (Those who disagree should comment and explain their disagreement.)

Painters who draw replicas of great works are not in the same category as those who paint the originals. If we understood teaching as an art, we would have a lesser category for those who copy instructional approaches, too. But we don’t because the social science paradigm encourages copying. This book is an example. The irony is stunning.

My argument is not extreme. I am not saying teachers should never look outside themselves. All artists look outside themselves. But worthwhile art emerges from an artist’s internal struggles. This concept was missing from TLYHIOF.

If Esquith wants to comment, he can explain why he believes inspired, memorable teaching is essentially an art or essentially an applied social science. I will give him the last word, but the answer cannot be, “It is both.”  The essence of something can only be one thing. That is why we call it the “essence.”

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