There Are No Shortcuts

Rafe Esquith has taught fifth grade at an inner-city school in Los Angeles for more than twenty years. There Are No Shortcuts shows how he turned himself into thoroughly devoted, successful, award-winning teacher. Mixing autobiography and social commentary, Esquith intends the book to inspire and guide young teachers—and to warn them.

Esquith leaves no doubt that he finds public schools inadequate—"a mess,” in fact—and staffed by administrators and teachers whose bureaucratic approach, designed to prepare students for standardized tests, produces conformance and mediocrity rather than the ability to think. The book supplies many anecdotes that illustrate his criticisms, his own failures, and his successes, but it also lists the rules that Esquith works by, such as “there are no shortcuts” in preparation and instruction. The regimen apparently works, considering how many of his students started in impoverished, broken homes, unable to speak English, and ended up at top-ranked colleges. Esquith also describes how he dealt with obstructionist administrators, petty or incompetent colleagues, hostile parents (one nearly shot him), and wayward students.

The biggest hurdle for Esquith, he implies, was himself. At times, the book reveals him to be hot-headed, judgmental, impatient, and given to overdramatization and pat generalizations—in other words, an idealist with a cause. That he managed to control and channel himself for the benefit of students, and without getting fired for it, makes his story all the more impressive. The reader may sense, however, that there is another, untold side to some of his anecdotes about the “bad guys” of education, and the book, as provocative and encouraging as it is, might have had greater depth had it given the devils their due. That notwithstanding, prospective teachers will find There Are No Shortcuts a light to their path. It is plain-spoken, clearly written, moving, and best of all, heartening.