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After I saw a documentary about Rafe Esquith, I decided to read "There Are No Shortcuts," in which this unique educator gives his perspective on the rewards, challenges, and disappointments of teaching in a Los Angeles public school. Esquith has two decades under his belt fighting entrenched bureaucrats who prefer conformity to individuality. During his years in Hobart Elementary School, he has taught inner-city children Shakespeare and other works of classic literature as well as advanced mathematics and music. In addition, he has given his students the skills and the confidence to achieve more than they ever dreamed was possible. All of this comes at a price. Esquith almost went bankrupt paying for the materials that he needed to support his curriculum, and he ended up in the hospital after putting in long hours with little sleep. He still works from dawn to dusk, as well as on Saturdays and school holidays, but he attempts to avoid burnout by occasionally taking some time off to relax with his family.

One of Esquith's mottos is "work hard, be nice." He certainly works hard, but he is not always nice in his criticism of the educational establishment. He skewers incompetent and indifferent teachers and administrators, ridicules irrational and obstructive rules and regulations, and even has a few harsh words for his own union, which he has supported over the years. Anything or anyone who prevents an educator from doing whatever he can to bring out the best in every student gets thumbs down from Esquith. He believes that a teacher should be able to come into school to work with students during his free time, be allowed to take kids on overnight trips, be permitted to create his own course of study, and be given respect by his fellow educators, even though he refuses to toe the party line.

"There Are No Shortcuts" is not a "how-to" book for new public school teachers. If anything, it's a cautionary tale about how a person who sticks his neck out is in danger of getting it chopped off. Esquith is not now and has never been a typical teacher, and few will have the desire or the energy to emulate him. However, he is inspiring in his desire to uncover his students' untapped talents, and he has given a great gift to those fortunate enough to have been in his classroom. It is heartwarming to learn that some of Esquith's former students go on to Ivy League schools and become successful professionals. Many of them keep in touch with their former mentor and a few take the time to revisit Hobart to lend a hand. It is also amazing that such luminaries as Ian McKellan and Hal Holbrook are enthusiastic fans of Esquith who regularly visit his classes.

Although Rafe Esquith is an award-winning teacher who has received widespread media coverage, he is not a saint. He confesses that he has made some serious errors, and he admits that he may occasionally come across as rude and intolerant. Esquith's passion for his job and his disparagement of teachers who coast rather than strive for excellence has aroused animosity in some of his colleagues who may be resentful of his fame and what they perceive as his sense of entitlement. Why should they have to follow the rules while Rafe Esquith gets special treatment? He makes no bones about how little patience he has for the many underachievers who stand in front of the nation's classrooms. These include educators who are lazy, rarely read, use the boring textbooks provided by the school instead of stimulating materials, and who refuse to give even a minute extra of their time to their students. Is Rafe Esquith an altruistic and heroic individual who is correct in his assessment of public education? Or is he an arrogant, unrealistic, and self-serving publicity hound? Whether you are a cheerleader or a critic, no one can dispute the fact that this is a man who expects a great deal of himself, his students, and everyone else, and he has no intention of lowering his standards anytime soon.
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on March 6, 2005
I ran into this book at a used book store five hours ago and have been reading it since, rapt. I had never heard of this guy, but since I am becoming a teacher I found his insider account of finding success in a tough school intriguing. And the book is never boring. Also, I'm sure many of the kids he taught benefited from his passion, creativity, fundraising abilities and personal largesse with his time and (modest) income.

Honestly, though, the guy is a nut. At one point he takes the older kids on a 31-day tour of 25 college campuses?!?! Is that really necessary? Useful? Wouldn't three or four have sufficed? At another point he is working crappy second, third and fourth jobs to buy presents for the kids and take them on trips. When a father is shot in the neck, he practically moves in with the wife and daughter -- and then is suprised when he doesn't get a thank you note ... maybe he inspired some jealousy?! He stares down murderers, takes on LA Unified any chance he gets -- by the end I was waiting for him to drive up the stairs on a motorcycle like Jim Belushi in "The Principal." After all, he's teaching at what he describes as "The Jungle" (which seems a bit extreme a name for even the roughest K-5!)

The guy's martyr/megalomania level is off the charts. He so desperately needs to be these kids' uber-father figure, it's genuinely scary. And despite the occasional bone he throws other teachers, he is very clear that NOBODY is even in his league as a teacher. Plus, he has set up his class where his kids are constantly performing to public acclaim, which then reflects back on the director.

Furthermore, he glosses over so many issues to make his story sexier. For example, immigrants are statistically much more likely to jump the achievement gap than minorities who have been here more than a generation, but everything is simplified here as "inner-city" vs. "middle-class." And nowhere in my reading did I pick up that his class was not an "average" fifth-grade class, but selected as an upper-track class ("gifted").

Overall, although it was a lively read, I found this a rather disturbing book, because if it takes Gen. Patton meets Mahatma Gandhi to make change in the schools then we're in even bigger trouble than I thought. No doubt, this guy is a good teacher -- and folks with big egos and neuroses accomplish all sorts of amazing things in this world -- but as a blueprint for renewal, this was discouraging rather than inspirational.

Take what you like and leave the rest, they say in AA, and that's what I'm doing with this one.
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on March 31, 2006
Rafe Esquivel has an amazing classroom going in California. Here he gives some episodes and advice for young teachers seeking to build off of his success.

Rafe transitioned from an elite district to an underprivileged elementary school and struggled to reconcile doing all for his students with overcoming district resistance. He does not mince words on his dislike for administrators. He's pretty transparent with his personal flaws. Many teachers spend out of their own pockets to help their students. Rafe admits taking this to extreme and self-destructive levels with his desires to take kids on class trips. Eventually he stresses himself out to the point where he endangers his students and he takes a much needed break to recharge.

Like most teacher books, Rafe's deep attachments to his students comes through. Most of the time, his relationships lead to challenging his students to positively go beyond their expectations and exceed their potential. Rafe also shares a couple of episodes where students took advantage of him and how he's learned to set more appropriate boundaries for necessary self-preservation.

Ultimately, Rafe's classroom takes off and he gains support of famous Shakespearean actors and the trust of his students. He puts in gargantuan hours but his students rise to the challenge and succeed academically and eventually go on to professional success. He develops some very creative systems such as classroom currency to motivate students. I also applaud him for establishing a real classroom community where past students actively participate in after school and before school hours. Having students form a band and put on performances, helps them to gain practical skills and self-confidence that shows how emphasizing the arts can be a powerful insprirational and spirt-affirming educational tool. Systems such as these help him translate an exceptional elementary school experience for his students into success in college and beyond.

I don't know if books like this will inspire teachers or intimidate them. For me, it kind of reaffirms my decision to stay on the nonprofit/for-profit side of teaching where I can operate free of bureaucratic nonsense. If we have to take underprivileged kids on plane trips to keep spark motivation, we're not going to be able to make long-lasting organizational change.

Hopefully a book like this can inspire a few administrators to provide the institutional changes necessary to internally reward outstanding teachers like Rafe Esquivel and give teachers the respect they so richly deserve.

4 stars.

--SD
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on June 29, 2003
I was a student at this jungle school. I resent our school being referred to as the jungle. We had caring administrators and other wonderful teachers besides Mr. Esquith, who happened to be my teacher in 5th grade. I started the GATE program as a 3rd grader so I had two other great teachers before him. I am sorry to see that he does not give credit to other teachers who have also prepared and nurtured me to become who I am today.
When I was in his class, I have learned many wonderful things and I did like the economy system. However, my parents did not like it when I brought Rated R movies to watch to write a review to get extra points. He has many Rated R movies in his class. My parents are Catholic and they didn't like some of his ways. However, because they don't speak English, they trusted him to teach me well. I was also saddened when I couldn't go on trips because I didn't have the money. Even though people think he gets a lot of money from his foundations and from Oprah, we still had to pay hundreds of dollars. This is my dad's one month salary. One of the girls mentioned in the book, Joann, had parents who are millionaires with many businesses so she got to go on all the trips. Another girl he mentions in the book as being the sweetest is also lucky because her parents often donate money to his foundation and invites him over to her rich neigborhood home. I respect Mr. Esquith and he has given me opportunities. However, it was not an equal opportunity for all children.
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on September 26, 2005
I want to preface this review by mentioning that I am a teacher. I work in an urban, low-income district with students who have many similarities to those in Rafe's class. Though I teach high school students, many of the issues are all too familiar.

I first became interested in this book after seeing an interview with the author on PBS. I immediately ordered the book and am so glad I did, as it could prove to be one of the most important steps that I ever take as an educator. It is having a huge impact on my philosophy of education and gave me many strategies for dealing with my students on a daily basis. I enjoyed my job before, and I work hard and try to do a good job, but am often worried that I'm not doing enough for the kids. And don't get me wrong, I am not going to arrive 3 hours early and stay 3 hours late to teach Sally some guitar lessons. If I did that, I wouldn't have any time to prepare engaging lessons. But I am enjoying my job more now and working harder now because I have a greater goal, in a sense.

It's hard to really put into words just what this book did for me. But believe me, it's had a huge impact on my life, both professionally and personally. Thanks to Rafe for sharing his experiences and ideas with the world. And to those who get all wrapped up in the whole, "Oh, he's trying to come off as a martyr" thing - there's so much more to get out of this book! If you get caught up in that, you're bound to miss all those unpolished gems of ideas that are scattered throughout the book.
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on August 2, 2007
Yes, this man is a dedicated teacher. No, his methods are not the wave of the future for educational reform or methods that would often work elsewhere. The writer skews the perspective of this book (which is very self-serving and slanted towards his own ego) by describing his inner-city school as "The Jungle" (ooh, scary) and his students as underprivileged inner city kids. Actually they are mostly Asian and Latino immigrant students. As a successful teacher of underprivileged children myself, I can tell you that it is relatively easy to teach students from immigrant families, even those just barely learning English, because their families came to this country for more opportunity and are usually highly motivated to succeed. The true underprivileged and most challenging students are those whose impoverished families have lived in American housing projects for generations, have little faith left in the system and are often unmotivated as students and parents. Families from this demographic are conspicuously absent from this model teacher's class. This is an important distinction to make, because when when the author touts himself as a "hero" and portrays himself as an expert on inner-city education, all too often people with less knowledge about the educational system will be awestruck and believe everything he says. There are many dedicated teachers in this country who use more sustainable methods of instruction and who are valiantly struggling with much more challenging students than the ones in this book.
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on July 26, 2003
"There Are No Shortcuts" by Rafe Esquith is a book that opens your eyes to the ridiculousness of LAUSD's (Los Angeles Unified School District) bureaucracy. I don't know about the majority of the US's public education system alumns, but the details in the book struck me as painfully, hilariously true (The red tape, self-aggrandizing teachers, the unfairness and the mediocrity in classrooms).
Esquith has a familiar, charismatic, and witty style to his writing, which invites you to stay awhile in his circus-crazy world. It's a fast, fun read, that makes you wish you had such a dedicated teacher when growing up.
However, one thing that readers *must* know before cracking open this books is: "There Are No Shortcuts" is NOT meant as a teaching manual. It's the story of a man, (a man with faults, yes, but a good man, nonetheless) sharing with the world what he has to go through each day to achieve his end goals - the enrichment of his kids' lives. Don't read this book if you're expecting your hand held for your teaching post.
People say that Esquith has geniuses for a class, but growing up in "the Jungle," I don't know whether to laugh or cry. The so-called "Gifted" and GATE programs were, and still, laughable attempts of allocating the "smart" from the "dumb." One thing I know: Don't underestimate the kids. Esquith may do a lot, but kids aren't stupid. In the book, Esquith expects great things from his students, and part of the charm of reading the book is seeing those kids grow - reaching a part of their potential more quickly with Esquith's mentorship.
Like many of the reviewers of the book has noted, no *sane*, *normal* teacher would ever dream of spending so much time and effort into his or her classroom - that's what differentiates Rafe Esquith from the rest of the pack.
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on August 4, 2004
As an aspiring teacher myself, I picked this book up in the hopes that it could serve as a helpful guide in my first couple years of teaching, or perhaps as a motivational tool for when things don't go so well. At times, it serves both these purposes, but as a whole, I found it unfulfilling and was left a little more than disappointed.

First, I would disregard most of the 1 and 2 star reviews posted here. Nearly all the reviews contain very little substance as to why the book was so bad, and seemed directed more towards the author as a person and not at the author as an educator or even at the book itself.

I found the book to be an extraordinarily easy read and found his blunt candor very often entertaining. The conversations he includes are not necessarily "recreat[ed] verbal battles (that the author always wins)", rather they more often portray many people's brutally honest conventions and feelings towards education. And based on my own first hand experience, I can say that there are very many people (too many) who treat education and children quite poorly, as he illustrates.

My initial complaint is the author's lack of hard evidence, which is not entirely necessary, but would have added a significant amount of validity to his story. Specific details as to the types of students he teaches (it does seem that many of his students are 'gifted and talented' well beyond most 10 year olds) and even glimpses into his own lesson plans or day-to-day techniques would have been useful. He does in fact include a chapter called "When Numbers Get Serious" where he describes in some detail his own micro-economic system within the classroom. I personally have a huge problem with this style of teaching with "token economies" because it has been proven in hundreds of studies to diminish an individual's intrinsic motivation to learn. It also discourages students from working together and helping others, and instead encourages them to fend for themselves at all costs, lest they lose their classroom seat. Honestly, I found his system quite appauling in that regard, especially since it reinforces the notion that competition and inequality are necessary and unavoidable in our society.

There are a number of other specific problems I had with his ideology on education (he contradicts himself quite a bit), but much of his basic approach I admire and agree with. I do not think it's crazy for someone to dedicate their lives to their job, because for some teachers (the best teachers) teaching IS their life and they find enjoyment in doing it all the time. For many people, that simply is not the case. I don't think it's fair to criticize the author or anyone else who finds real enjoyment (not simply the dollars and cents) from their job. I don't think that the author particularly looks down at those around him for not working as hard as he does, but I think he feels that he has more experience and knowledge than those around him and should therefore have more autonomy in his classroom. And rightly so.

I recommend this book only if you have some extra time or if your curiosity gets the best of you. If you seek constructive approaches and cold, hard facts, I highly recommend anything by Alfie Kohn, specifically Punished by Rewards. He may actually blow your mind.
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on December 22, 2004
I had a few questions for Mr Esquith after finishing the book (namely how this could apply to high school and how he balanced his personal and professional lives). I did an Internet search, and emailed him. He responded the same night with a phone number and asked me to call. When I got in touch with him, he was working with a class, and took my 20 minute phone call to talk about teaching, personal life, etc. While people may have personal or philisophical issues with Mr. Esquith, how many authors are that responsive?

While the reviews overall, were helpful, I think something needs come to the forefront of the discussion. This is not a book about what the ideal teacher is. It is certainly not going to provide all the answers or increase your student achievement after you finish the last page. Nor will it provide lesson plans for the year. Most of all it is not about measuring yourself against his achievements.

The value of "There Are No Shortcuts" lies in the discussion of realistic philosophy from a successful teacher in the trenches. Regardless of what students he teaches, gifted, average or otherwise, it is a competitive world (always was, always will be) and the education many of our students receive is not adequately preparing them for this world, especially in the inner city. Mr. Esquith provides some solutions he tried with both failure and success, and opened his experience up to show his growth. I believe that these experiences are useful to any teacher, or aspiring teacher to question, analyze, or use in their personal growth as an educator.

In my conversation with Mr. Esquith, he recommended that I get out and observe as many good teachers as possible. This book gives you a peak into his classroom. You take the good with the bad, analyze situations, learn from others, and you apply it to your circumstances. In the end, you are better off because you are looking for answers, not because you read a book and expected it to be the Bible that would save you. Read, enjoy, question and apply what is useful. It's well worth the $14 (less than $5 used) and 3-4 hours of reading.
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on July 31, 2003
Mr. Esquith clearly states why he wrote this book: "...this book is meant to be reminder OF WHAT PUBLIC EDUCATION CAN BE," in addition to giving hope to young teachers. I, too, teach in a large, urban school system (Charlotte-Mecklenburg NC) and I can identify with the rigid, top-down, "the administrators know what's right," abide-by-the-rules-and-keep-the-kids-controlled mentality. It's nice to know that I'm not alone and that someone else has prevailed.
Make no mistake, Esquith IS a freak. He is passionate about teaching. Well ... GREAT! Mozart was passionate about composing, and the world is richer for it. For me, a teacher in public schools now for 8 years and previous experience as a college instructor, this book is an inspiration to NOT GIVE UP. Too often, I fall into the trap of teaching to the bright kids and give up too easily on the less able. I will work harder this year to teach every child, to not let administrators and burnt-out or cynical teachers pull me away from a dream I had in college to create greatness in students. Sometimes the worst place in the world for a teacher with hope is at the lunch table with other teachers who have given up.
I came across Mr. Esquith's book by accident. Other books I've read this summer that have reinforced his message are Levine's "A Mind at a Time", Gardner's "The Unschooled Mind", and Gould's "The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have". And even though I've grown by reading and reflection, guess what? I'll still have to go to some useless In-service session and I'll get no credit for REAL professional growth. Such is the educational establishment, as Mr. Esquith so eloquently points out.
No, this book is not Wong's "First Days of School." It's an inspirational book and a diary of one teacher's battle to achieve high standards against a wave of mediocrity.
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