Classroom Heroes: Rafe Esquith's Mission To Share Shakespeare With His Students

Sir Ian McKellen and the members of England's Royal Shakespeare Company sat in rapt attention inside an inner-city Los Angeles classroom.

They watched as a group of fifth graders showcased their acting abilities and musical talent in a collection of scenes from Shakespeare's works.

Members of the troupe gave a standing ovation and congratulated teacher Rafe Esquith. The performance, they told him, was the "ultimate example of why Shakespeare should be performed."

Despite catapulting to international fame for his work teaching underprivileged children the art of Shakespeare, veteran teacher Rafe Esquith shies away from center stage. He strives to keep the focus on his students. His humility underscores his teaching philosophy, one he endeavors to share with parents and fellow teachers.

Over the last 25 years, Esquith has built a tremendous community around his classroom. Former students and other supporters help Esquith continue to supply exciting learning opportunities for the children who enter his classroom.

When Esquith stepped into Hobart Boulevard Elementary School as a young teacher in 1985, he was shocked by what he found.

At Hobart, 92 percent of the students live in poverty. Of the school's graduates, Esquith says only 30 percent are expected to earn a high school diploma.

"My greatest struggle was the realization that this is supposed to be a land of equal opportunity and it's not," Esquith says. He explains his work is "trying to get kids the opportunities promised to them in the Constitution."

In his first year at Hobart, Esquith quickly found the school day too short for all the things he wanted to accomplish. He decided to start after-school drama classes for his students.

By 1991, the after-school lessons in Esquith's Room 56 had evolved into a true Shakespeare company.

Today, the Hobart Shakespeareans are internationally renowned. Each school year, Esquith's fifth graders organize and rehearse a play to be performed in June.

Esquith has been honored with Disney's American Teacher Award and the National Medal of Arts. He has penned three books about his experiences, including the bestseller "Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire." He's been applauded by everyone from the Dalai Lama to the Queen of England.

Each year, thousands of people flock to his classroom, attempting to find the root of his success.

According to Esquith, the answer is simple: his endurance. "The press gets it wrong, they try to make me this iconic teacher," he explains. "It's not because I'm so brilliant, it's because I stuck with it."

He believes his accomplishments could be replicated by other teachers who are able to hang in there for as long as he has. Twenty-five years after the first meeting of his after-school program, you can still find him inspiring students daily in Room 56.

Since he's been at Hobart for so long, Esquith has built up a community of graduates and supporters. Past students continue to lend a hand, making Room 56 special for future generations.

"I have an army," Esquith jokes.

Matt Parlow, a former student who graduated from Yale Law School, helped Esquith establish the Hobart Shakespearean Foundation. The organization collects donations to advance the classroom's capability to provide amazing experiences for the students, like traveling the country to perform in Shakespeare festivals.

The Song brothers, Berkeley engineering grads both taught by Esquith, set up a website for the Hobart Shakespeareans, providing a way to spread the word about the foundation and solicit online donations.

In Yong Song says he was eager to find a way to use his skills to give back to Esquith's classroom. He and his brother faithfully update the website monthly with the latest news and photos from Esquith's class.

For Song, the lessons he learned from Esquith go beyond Shakespeare. "It's not about teaching kids to be thespians," Song says. He believes it's about teaching team work. "When people come together and work toward a common goal, they can achieve much bigger things."

The annual Shakespeare performances are a testament to this philosophy, as are the academic accomplishments of Esquith's students, who regularly place in the top 10 percent of the nation in test scores.

Esquith's mission is to encourage young teachers to stick with it so they can reach the success he has found.

"I meet lots of great young teachers and they give up too easily," he says. "You're going to have bad days. You're going to have days where you do everything right, and you still have a horrible day, and you go home and you cry. And to make it worse, you put on the latest Hollywood movie about teachers... and that's not you."

He may be applauded for staging complicated plays and raising test scores, but to Esquith, day-to-day persistence is the most crucial and least appreciated quality in a great teacher.

"This is a really hard job," Esquith shares. "This is a long journey. It's a marathon, it's not a sprint."

Supporters can donate online to support the Hobart Shakespeareans.

Selected scenes from the Hobart Shakespeareans' 2010 performance of "The Comedy Of Errors."