SAN FRANCISCO - Rafe Esquith says he is trying to teach children to be kind and decent in a world that often isn't. Getting children to the top level of moral development - doing the right things because it is part of who they are - requires time.
"There is no fast solution to character," Esquith said. "This is a lifetime of work, a lifetime journey, where the kids discover who they are. Let's slow down."
Esquith, whose mission is "be nice, work hard," delivered the opening keynote address, "Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-Up, Muddled-up, Shook-up World," Thursday afternoon during the 17th National Forum on Character Education. Five Sentinel Career and Technology Center administrators and staff members are in California for the conference and are to accept the school's National School of Character award today.
Esquith, who has been a teacher for more than 20 years, has received the National Teacher of the Year Award and is the only teacher to receive the president's National Medal of the Arts, according to information provided at the conference.
Esquith, whose students perform plays by Shakespeare, reviewed his achievements but said the only thing he is proud of is after 28 years, he still is a public school teacher in Los Angeles. He said he was in his classroom Thursday morning and would be there that night, rehearsing.
"This is what I do for a living," he said.
Esquith is the author of "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire," "There are No Shortcuts" and "Lighting their Fire" and is a fifth-grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School in a Los Angeles neighborhood. At Hobart, 92 percent of the children live below the poverty level, and none of the children speaks English as a native language.
"It's a tough place to work," he said.
Esquith said his students go to college, finish college and do extraordinary things with their lives. There are schools that believe testing is everything, yet the real test doesn't happen at the end of the year. It is where students are in 10 or 15 years, he said.
"We need you. Stay put. Build something," he said to young teachers.
Esquith said he teaches his students the six levels of moral development, which become the theme throughout the school year. On the first day of school, he challenges his students to look at their behavior and why they do what they do.
Most children are taught to be level-one thinkers and do what they are supposed to do in school, such as listen and do their homework, because they are afraid if they don't, they will get in trouble.
Level-two thinkers do things for a reward, such as a gold star, or getting their name on the wall or a pat on the back.
When using level-three thinking, people do things to please others. Level-four thinking, which is popular, involves people doing something because it is the rule, Esquith said.
Level-five thinking, he said, involves people doing things because they are considerate of others. The ultimate is level six, and people do things because it is part of their personal code of behavior, he said. In level six, people work hard and are nice because that is who they are.