Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from TEACH LIKE YOUR HAIR’S ON FIRE: THE METHODS AND MADNESS INSIDE ROOM 56 by Rafe Esquith.
Copyright © 2007 By Rafe Esquith
Rafe Esquith is a multiple award-winning teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, California. For the past twenty-seven years, he has been sharing his passion for Shakespeare, Mark Twain and baseball with his 5th grade students, who perform unabridged Shakespeare plays every year despite coming from homes where English is generally not their first language. His students have opened for the Royal Shakespeare Company and performed at the Globe Theater in London. Esquith is the only teacher in American history thus far to ever receive the National Medal of Arts, and he was also made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire.
With experience, patience, and lessons learned from failure, you can create a classroom based on trust. The students know you to be fair. You’re dependable. The kids know that with you around, they’re safe and they’re going to learn something. A classroom based on trust and devoid of fear is a fantastic place for kids to learn.
But a foundation of trust is not an end result. It is not even a middle ground; it is only a good first step. We’ve all seen this time and time again: Students do a terrific job with a fine teacher, but one day the teacher calls in sick or has to attend a meeting. A substitute takes over, and the classroom that had previously functioned so well turns into a scene from Animal House.
A classroom based on trust and devoid of fear is a fantastic place for kids to learn. But a foundation of trust is not an end result. It is not even a middle ground; it is only a good first step.
Over the years, I have tried many different ways to develop a classroom culture in which students behaved well for all the right reasons. Most teaching victories come as a result of years of difficult and painful labor – there are very few “educational eurekas,” where the light bulb blazes over your head and you know where to go. But one glorious evening it happened to me.
I had been planning lessons around my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and was reading a study guide that analyzed the novel’s characters in relation to Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development. The Six Levels were simple, easy to understand, and, most important, perfectly applicable to teaching young people exactly what I wanted them to learn. I quickly incorporated the Six Levels into my class, and today they are the glue that holds it together. Trust is always the foundation, but the Six Levels are the building blocks that help my kids grow as both students and people.
I teach my students the Six Levels on the first day of class. I do not expect the kids to actually apply them to their own behavior immediately. Unlike simplistic approaches that tell us, “If you follow these twenty-seven rules, you too can have a successful child,” the Six Levels take a lifetime of effort. They are a beautiful road map, and I am constantly amazed at how well my students respond to them.
Level I: I Don’t Want to Get in Trouble
Most students are trained from the minute they enter school to be Level I thinkers. Practically all of their behavior is based on the fact that they want to avoid trouble. “Quiet down!” they frantically tell one another. “The teacher’s coming!” They do homework to stay out of trouble. They walk in a line to keep the teacher happy. They listen in class to stay in the good graces of the instructor. And we teachers and parents reinforce this constantly by promising them trouble if they don’t toe the line.
But is this good teaching? Level I thinking is based on fear. Eventually, we want our children to behave well not because they fear punishment, but because they believe it is right.
Level I thinking is based on fear. Eventually, we want our children to behave well not because they fear punishment, but because they believe it is right.
Level II: I Want a Reward
Eventually children begin to make decisions for reasons other than avoiding trouble. But teachers are especially guilty of reinforcing what in our class is identified as Level II thinking. We learned that if children are rewarded for good behavior, they are more likely to repeat behavior we deem acceptable. There is, of course, truth in this. Whether the reward is candy, toys, or more time for sports, a dangling carrot can be a powerful inducement for good behavior
I have visited middle school classrooms in which teachers use Level II thinking to encourage their students to finish homework. One history teacher I met pits his classes against each other in a competition to see which of them can complete the most homework. The winning class gets a prize at the end of the year. Apparently this teacher had forgotten that a knowledge of history is supposed to be the prize. When I spoke to the class that did the most homework, I learned that they were terrific at completing assignments and turning them in, but their understanding of history was shockingly limited.
Level III: I Want to Please Somebody
As they grow up, kids learn to do things to please people: “Look, Mommy, is this good?” They do the same thing with teachers, chiefly with the charismatic or popular ones. They sit up straight and behave the way we hope they’ll behave. But they do it for the wrong reasons.
When kids want to please you, it gives your ego a jolt. It’s nice to have students show you what you think of as respect, to have them jump when you say jump. But we can still do better. This is a point on which I simultaneously tease and challenge my students. Do you brush your teeth for me? Do you tie your shoes for me? Do you see how silly that sounds? And yet many children still spend their days trying to please their teachers.
I still think we can do better.
When kids want to please you, it gives your ego a jolt. It’s nice to have students show you what you think of as respect, to have them jump when you say jump. But we can still do better.
Level IV: Follow the Rules
Level IV thinking is very popular these days. With so many young people behaving badly, most teachers are trained to lay down the law on the first day of class. After all, it is essential that kids know the rules. The better teachers take the time to explain the “why” of certain rules, and many creative teachers get their students involved in the creation of class standards. The theory is that kids who are involved in generating classroom rules will be more invested in following them. There is truth in this.
I have no problem with rules. Obviously, children need to learn about boundaries and behavioral expectations. But if we want our children to receive a meaningful education, do we really want them to do things because Rule 27 says they should?
I met a teacher who had an interesting way of teaching his kids to say “thank you.” One of his rules was that if the teacher gave you something – a calculator or a baseball or a candy bar – you had three seconds to acknowledge his kindness by saying “Thank you.” If you didn’t do this, the gift was immediately taken back.
And it worked. The kids said it constantly. The only problem was that they had no real appreciation for the gifts they received. They were merely following a rule. Also, the “lesson” did not carry over into other areas of the kids’ lives. One night I took those same children to see a play, and they were no more or less gracious than the other children in the theater.
Level V: I Am Considerate of Other People
Level V is rarefied air for both children and adults. If we can help kids achieve a state of empathy for the people around them, we’ve accomplished a lot.
After many years of trying to get this idea across to my students, I finally found success by introducing them to Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird. At one point in the novel, Atticus gives his daughter, Scout, a piece of advice that perfectly illustrates Level V thinking: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.” Many of my students took this advice to heart and before long the idea began to snowball. During these years, I received extraordinary thank-you notes from my substitute teachers. They were amazed that my students were able to modulate their voices throughout the day. When one sub asked the class why they spoke in whispers, the kids told him they did not want to disturb the kids in the next room. Announcements were made by grateful pilots on airplanes that the Hobart Shakespeareans were on board, and planeloads of people applauded their quiet demeanor and extraordinary manners. I was happy and very proud to be their teacher.
But . . . you guessed it. I still think we can do better. I know we can do better because I’ve seen it happen.
Level VI: I Have a Personal Code of Behavior and I Follow It
The Level VI thinker is someone who knows himself. He does not base his actions on fear, or desire to please someone, or even on rules. He has his own rules.
Level VI behavior is the most difficult to attain and just as difficult to reach. This is because a personal code of behavior resides within the soul of an individual. It also includes a healthy dose of humility. This combination makes it almost impossible to model; by definition, Level VI behavior cannot be taught by saying, “Look at what I’m doing. This is how you should behave.”
A personal code of behavior resides within the soul of an individual. It also includes a healthy dose of humility. This combination makes it almost impossible to model; by definition, Level VI behavior cannot be taught by saying, “Look at what I’m doing. This is how you should behave.”
I teach my students about level VI in several ways. Since I cannot discuss my own personal codes, I try to help the kids identify them in others. There are any number of outstanding books and films in which the Level VI individual exists. It’s fun for parents and teachers to find this type of thinker – they’re all over the place once you begin looking.
If you are skeptical about trying to get kids to this level of thinking, I don’t blame you. Any teacher who is sincere and ambitious about what he does opens himself up to colossal failures and heartbreaking disappointments. But that’s what I do. It’s what all good teachers and parents do. We ask a lot of our kids and do the best we can.
A few years ago, I missed a day of school in order to speak to a group of teachers in another state. I told my class in advance and did not discuss consequences if they behaved poorly for the substitute. I did not promise any rewards if they behaved well. I told them I’d miss them and would see them the day after my talk.
When I returned, I found a note from the substitute to the effect that my students were wonderful. About an hour later, there was a knock at the door of my classroom, and a short woman came in, holding hands with her six-year-old son. Something had happened to her little boy, a first grader, the day before. Walking home from school, he had been beaten up and robbed of his backpack. While this was happening, other students, as is so often the case, only watched or continued on their way home. But a little girl who was walking by had picked him off the sidewalk, taken him to a fountain, cleaned him up and walked him home to make sure he arrived safely. The boy’s mother was going around trying to find the girl who had helped her son, to thank her.
I asked my class if anyone knew about this. Nobody knew anything. They left and continued their search. Most of the kids were speculating on which school bully had perpetrated the crime, but Brenda kept working on her math. I noticed this because Brenda hated math.
I stared at her as she hunched over her math problems in the back of the room. And for one oh-so-brief moment she looked up, unaware that I was watching her. She looked up because she had a secret and wanted to know if anyone knew it. I didn’t until our eyes met for a split second. Her eyes narrowed and she gave me a serious shake of her head that told me to mind my own business.
It was Brenda. She had helped the little boy, but her plan for anonymity had been foiled by the mother and my brief glance. The rest of the day was a blur. Brenda had reached Level VI and no one would ever know. She and I have remained very close over the years, but we have never discussed that day.
I don’t think we can do any better than this.
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