Tough lessons

An interview with firebrand educator Esmi Raji Codell.

Fiona Morgan
June 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In preparation for the first day of school, fifth-grade teacher Esmi Raji Codell had everything in her classroom set up perfectly. There was the
clothesline hung with activities for kids who finished their work early, the art center stocked with new juicy markers, portraits of world explorers
above the chalkboard and a papier machi sculpture she'd made herself.
It was the beginning of Codell's first year as a teacher in an inner-city
Chicago public school, and she was full of enthusiasm. "This room is so fun it's sickening," she wrote in her diary. "I feel sorry for any kid who is not in this room."

She was also prepared for her kids to dislike her, and for any physical danger she might encounter. She was even ready, if necessary, to use the
body holds she'd been taught in her college course on Classroom Management. Codell was no pushover; she'd learned from her mentor that being a villain could be an effective way to raise the standards in the classroom. To avoid the pitfalls many first-year teachers face, Codell explained to the class on the first day of school how mean she was (she even wore pointy black boots, to add to the effect). She also told them to call her Madame Esmi, rather than Ms. Codell. "Mrs. is short for mistress, and I'm nobody's mistress," she explained. "I'm too old for Miss, and if I said Ms., most of you would call me Mrs. by accident, and that would get on my nerves." Frivolous as it may have seemed, she felt it was a powerful lesson in self-definition,


Her nonconformist moniker didn't go over well with the school principal,
Mr. Turner. Despite her preparation for teaching, Codell couldn't have been prepared for her tense relationship with Turner -- a man who called
her late at night to solicit ideas for which she received no credit -- and the grim realities of administrative politics.

Codell kept a journal of all her successes, failures and observations
throughout her first year of teaching. Her book "Educating Esmi: Diary
of a Teacher's First Year"
released this spring by Algonquin Books, is
full of surprising tales of administrative corruption, personal insights
into her students and hilarious tales of fifth-grade exploration -- both hers and those of her kids. Codell's rare candor and fireball integrity shine through this very funny and honest document of hard-won educational experience. She is now a "children's literature specialist," an elementary school librarian who teaches literature to students in kindergarten through 8th grade. Salon recently spoke with Codell by phone from her home in Chicago.

One of the things that's so surprising about your book is how dishy it is. Because it's a diary, you're able to expose all of the problems that you saw in the school.


When I wrote it, I never thought it was going to be published. It was thoughtfully edited, but it wasn't heavily edited. The real feelings about my teaching experience come through, for better or for worse. One of the hard parts about having it published is, it doesn't always show my best side, but I think that it shows education in an honest way and in a way that I as a teacher was having trouble finding in the literature.

When you first got the school you were just out of college, and you had an energy that a lot of people who'd been teaching there for a long time didn't have. What sorts of things did you learn in college that you wanted to explore?

I went to a low-key commuter state college that I felt really prepared me beautifully for my experience as a teacher in an urban setting. They taught us really basic things. For instance, they taught us how to use equipment that was over 20 years old, because they knew that's what we would encounter in city schools. So we learned to do things like run old opaque projectors and other strange, dusty things.


They also taught us a lot of theory. I remember when I first started my education courses, they talked a lot about B. F. Skinner and behavioral modification. I thought, "Oh that's so fascist! How could they even think of doing things like that. Children aren't rats in mazes!" But by the end of my first year, I wanted to be Skinner's intern. I used him all the time, and I would have had a very different year had I not been well-versed in his theories. Just being sensitive to the children's stages of development, I think I was a better teacher. A lot of people in education courses think that this is just theory, it doesn't really apply to the real world. But it applied for me.

The fact that you asked your students to call you Madame Esmi rather than Ms. Codell is a pretty big issue between you and the principal, Mr. Turner. Why did you insist on that, and what effect do you think it had on the kids?


At the time, I sometimes felt stupid for my insistence that the children call me Madame. But in the long run I realized that these children are often referred to by names that society imposes upon them. There's a certain amount of power in seeing someone choose their own name and stick by it and identify themselves before someone else has the opportunity to identify them. I'm glad I did that, even though it seemed silly at the time. I never intentionally wanted to shake things up.

You walk a line between being one of the kids and being a strict disciplinarian. How do you think that changed the way they looked at teachers?

I hope that they saw teachers as individuals. When I was student teaching, I was always told that some teachers are like mother figures, but I was never really a mother figure. I was more like a big sister figure, and I think I had the patience and temperament, unfortunately, of a big sister, too. I didn't necessarily want the children as my friends. I was trying to be a model of someone who was doing their own thing and having success at it. [I wanted to show them] that you don't necessarily have to march to the same beat as everybody else, and you can still get done what you want to get done.


I think it was very important to me to have sort of a villain for a mentor, because then I learned not to care so much. I was able to think to myself, "Well, I can play the bad guy and still get good results." After my mentor Ismene died, I had a little porcelain figure of Captain Hook on my desk that I would glance at frequently as sort of my surrogate mentor. I would think about how pirates are so rough and tough and kids love them anyway. You've just got to do what you have to do to get past that point of wondering "How am I doing?" to "How are the children doing?"

I was surprised at how firm I could be, with some of them. You know, I got a piece of advice before I started teaching that was actually very helpful for me: Act angry before you are angry. That way you can be more in control of your emotions, and you can be more fair in doling out consequences.

There always is this conflict, which you get at in your book, between the need to be able to the discipline the kids and the pressure of parents becoming unhappy, the threat of lawsuits and the issue of bad publicity. Do schools and teachers have the authority they need to handle serious discipline problems? Or do you think it's not their job?


I think teachers generally feel like they are working in a sue-happy environment and are sort of afraid to discipline. It's sort of a damned if you do damned if you don't situation and it needs to be looked at, of course, on an individual basis. The more teachers are involved in school-wide decision making -- in a real way, not just in a cool-with-the-administration way, but in designing the curriculum -- you're going to get a lot more accountability from teachers.

I think there's a lot of excuse-making on both sides. Both parents and teachers have many opportunities to focus more on the whole child and less on the system. I really believe that in the future, teachers will be able to do that, as long as they take the reins at the schools. There's a lot of top-down decision making that goes on, and teachers are often the last ones to be asked their opinion. Meanwhile, they're the ones actually in the situations with the children daily, hourly. They're an overlooked resource.

As a white teacher in a largely black inner-city school, you encountered some things that were going on with your students that you didn't fully understand and were sometimes afraid of.

I think most of what I feared didn't come from them as a racial group but as a class group. I think the fact that they were so poor and underprivileged [was scarier to me than the possibility] of them stealing from me or hurting me or having weapons available to them.


The cultural thing, that was a two-way street. There were things I didn't understand about them, but there was also plenty they didn't understand about me. And I think that we were able to bridge a lot of those gaps through literature and literature-based learning. We studied some cultures that were not even represented in the class; we did a large unit on Asia, just appreciating what culture has to offer -- food and dance -- which, by the way, aren't generally part of the mainstream curriculum. Even though we had a lot of differences, we could trust that every culture knew how to party a little bit.

These cultural differences were much more complicated with the adults, especially the administration. There is a scene in Mr. Turner's office where you tell him he needs to get tougher on the discipline problems, and he tells you, "You don't understand. They're black. It's just the way black people are." Do you think his attitude at that moment is endemic of the system's failures?

Yes. I'm glad you brought up that conversation. For me, it's the most important conversation in the book and one of the most important experiences in my education. It was the end of my naiveti and the end of my belief that Brown vs. the Board of Education is an American reality. As far as I'm concerned, it's still part of the American dream, and something that I realized needed to be worked towards consistently.

That conversation examines self-hate. I mean, Mr. Turner was talking about his own culture when he said that terrible thing. I also on occasion have said things thinking that since I'm from a group, I can sort of down the group. But it's a dangerous thing to do, and it's a very dangerous thing when you're talking about children. The whole point of school, as far as I'm concerned, is creating opportunity.


You mention several times after you discipline a student, especially a boy who you know has serious family problems, that you're afraid that he's going to shoot you. After all that's happened in the past year with the school shootings, that's especially chilling to read.

I think there were a lot of teachers around the country who were saddened by the event [at Columbine High School in April], of course, but not necessarily as shocked as the general public might have been. I know that there are many incidents that go wholly unreported for different reasons, and there are guns brought to schools all the time. I think that if we want to attract teachers to the profession in the next century, someone is going to have to address the very real fear of teachers that their students may be armed. It's making an already difficult job, for some, an intolerable risk. It's something that certainly affected my decision when I was pregnant and coming to a school that I felt was armed. The principal was saying, "The children are just bringing the guns to show." It needs to be contended with, not so much on a big question level, but on a professional level. How are you going to get a teacher to come? Because if it gets much worse, I won't come, and I'm a very good teacher, I think.

How has the book been received by the public and by the people you used to work with?

I was expecting a lot of backlash, because there are a lot of sensitive race issues in the book. I entertained the thought that I would be canned, but so far it's been really positive.


What about Mr. Turner?

You know, we don't really talk that much anymore. (Laughs.) I don't think it was as well received by him, according to reports from other people at the school. Actually I think it hurt the vice principal very much too. I felt badly about that, because I wasn't out to hurt these people. But I think their behavior told some real truths about education. And I hope if they are in a different place now, where they can be embarrassed by this, that's score one for them, because they've moved on. I think it offers other administrators the opportunity to see what they might be doing to their staff and morale. So I thank them for the help they gave me in presenting that. But thanks is all they get -- which is more than I got! Ha ha!

What do they say? "A thousand stories in the naked city," and mine is just one. I think it's a gender thing, too, because so much of teaching is anecdotal, and so much of what women end up doing is anecdotal. It's probably not every teacher's story, but I just hope other teachers will start telling theirs.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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