Real Talk with Rafe Esquith: Earned Happiness

Rafe Esquith on teaching students the rewards of
hard work.

By Rafe Esquith
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Meet the Author Rafe Esquith has taught at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles for more than 25 years.

He is the author of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire and There Are No Shortcuts. His newest book is Real Talk for Real Teachers. He is the only teacher to have been awarded the National Medal of Arts.

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I recently read a high school student’s blog. The content was expected: complaints about teachers and classmates, and a general dissatisfaction with life in the adolescent zone. Had it not been for the highlighted section espousing the author’s philosophy of life, I never would have given the ramblings another thought.

But at the top of each entry, the student boldly proclaimed:

If it ain’t free, it’s not for me.

Welcome to the Age of Entitlement. It’s a problem that no teacher can avoid. I have always thought of teaching as a service profession, but lately it seems harder and harder to keep the customer satisfied. When students receive a poor grade, parents yell at us, when they should be scolding their child. I had a father curse at me because he didn’t know where his child was at 5 p.m.—the child was not even in my class. One mother complained when her son was removed from the class play for choking a
classmate; her child, she told the principal, had a right to be in the production because he played the cello. And let’s not forget the endless line of students demanding letters of recommendation when they have done nothing to deserve them.

Do not give in to this trend. We all need to become history teachers, of a sort. We need to teach students the true meaning behind Thomas Jefferson’s oft-repeated words: that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The key word here is pursuit. Students are not entitled to happiness. Success and happiness are earned through pursuit. If you want to be a good musician, or mathematician, or baseball player, you must pursue these goals through thousands of hours of disciplined study. No one is going to hand you anything in this life, and no one should.

Each summer I have the privilege of taking a group of middle and high school students to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. My students have been going for 30 years, and the 10 days we spend there each summer makes for wonderful memories. But to qualify for the trip, students must come to my classroom every Saturday morning and study Shakespeare, literature, and higher mathematics. The kids must earn top grades in school, and consistently live a life of integrity.

Last summer we all noticed something disturbing. Before each show, a man stood in front of one of the theaters holding a printed sign that said, 'I want a free ticket.'

My students and I love to help others. We feed the homeless, and we gather school supplies for needy kids. We believe in sharing. But this man upset them. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs smoothly because volunteers donate their time as ushers, food service employees, and gift shop cashiers. These hardworking people get to see the shows they help support.

But this man donates nothing. He is not destitute. He is well groomed and well dressed. He just wants something for nothing. As my students entered the theater, they promised me they would never be like that man. They had earned their tickets, and they would always pursue their dreams. They know they are entitled to nothing, a value they internalized from our regular class discussions. Hopefully, it’s a discussion you have with your students, too.

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