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Good Teaching, Teacher Intimidation, USA Schools

World-class teacher, Rafe Esquith, put in “teacher jail”

There are many good and great teachers, but even among them, Rafe Esquith is regarded as one of the standouts.

Rafe runs has done amazing work for decades, bringing Shakespeare and other literary greats to mainly minority students from low socio-economic backgrounds in LA. They visit places like Harvard to set their sights high, they watch and perform plays, they take educational visits. He feeds them snacks to keep them going. He gets them music tuition and instruments, too, largely through private donations from his many supporters.

Rafe’s work running The Hobart Shakespeareans has brought a list accolades as long as your arm, including National Medal of the Arts. a Compassion in Action Award from the Dalai Lama, and an MBE from the Queen.  He was given the Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award and Disney’s National Outstanding Teacher of the Year award. There are documentaries about him, and he is written about in books about pedagogy. You get the idea.

In short, he is a great teacher.

And now Rafe is in “teacher jail”. He’s been there four months already.

In Los Angeles, the School District has what has been termed “teacher jail” for teachers under investigation. teachers report to the District’s offices and sit out the working day there, in some sort of odd house arrest. This is before anything has been proven and often with no criminal charges laid. Sometimes the charges are minor, and there are reports that the jails are sometimes used to silence teachers who oppose reforms too loudly.

Back to Rafe. His ‘crime’ was to joke that if The Hobart Shakespeareans didn’t get enough funds they would have to perform that year’s play naked. It seems that the joke passed and none of the students took it seriously or were concerned, but an observing teacher told management, and management told the district, and from then on it was the subject of an investigation. Not one parent or student has complained.

In fact quite the opposite:

The LA Times reports that “[t]he teachers union has criticized these so-called teacher jails, saying that instructors typically aren’t informed of the charges against them and that they are barred from their classrooms for far too long.”

It seems to me to be a heartbreaking state of affairs when such an inspired educator is taken out of his classroom for months on end for a throw away remark. Perhaps he should have been more prudent? But even if you think that’s the case, a reminder would have surely been enough?

The District has now widened its investigation into The Hobart Shakespeareans’ use of funds. It all seems rather reminiscent of The Crucible, where one person shouts witch and suddenly there’s a cacophony of accusations.

Of course, accusations must be investigated. But months and months sitting in a “teacher jail” seems a rather heavy handed approach when no charges at all have been laid. Meanwhile, Esquith’s students graduated without him and this year’s plays were cancelled.

As Rafe’s lawyer noted, it seems to be a case of “no good deed goes unpunished”.


Further Reading

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"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi


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