HV061- Educating Esme

Esme Codell in the classroom with studentsHearing Voices from NPR®
061 Educating Esme: A Teacher’s Diary
Host: Alex Chadwick of Interviews 50 Cents
Airs week of: 2009-6-10

“Educating Esme” (52:00 mp3):

During her first year teaching fifth grade in a Chicago public school, Esmé Codell kept a journal. This radio hour is based on her book Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year. Produced by Jay Allison with Christina Egloff for their Life Stories series and Chicago Public Radio. (This version is slightly edited for time; the original is at PRX.)

Esmé Raji Codell: Planet Esme | Blog | Amazon | Audible | WBEZ 848 | LOC Webcast.

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Comments (20)

what a moving story about an amazing teacher. it made me tearful. i wish all teachers could be so creative, compassionate, and effective.

one thing the story makes me realize is how little adults probably know about daily classroom life.

thank you for such an excellent story.

Comment added by jennifer tobias on 06.14.09

Great story ,smart,moving,descriptive and beautifully narrated .It gave me a great insight into the lives of Teachers and how dedicated one must be .It is a most overwhelming and underappreciated profession.NM

Comment added by gerry burder on 06.14.09

I listened to this story with tears of joy and remembrance(trying to look so mean at the beginning of every school year). I was a teacher long ago but didn’t come close to being the fantastic educator Esme must have been or still is. If only there were more like her-all over the world.

Comment added by anita herz on 06.15.09

Thank You!

Comment added by Boone on 06.16.09

I wish she was my teacher growing up. What a great story. Thanks, Madame Esme

Comment added by Eric on 06.16.09

No doubt a fine loving and committed woman but the plot of ths story is the usual political correctness. This is a feel good movie. These kinds of stories about women and minorities fighting poverty and disadvantage for a better life abound and individuals are glorified yet the problems of inner citys remain!

Blaiming soceity, funding and programs obviously is not working. Schools bogged down in trying to get kids to even listen to a teacher reflects problems schools have no business trying to deal with as it perverts their function and they become politicized when soceity is the scapegoat for lack of family values, dicipline and respect.

Pack people like rats in a city coupled with crime and drugs and unemployment and low wage jobs and the problems are ademic. Miss Esme’ is a resulting sign of the problem rather than a solution.

Thomas Jefferson noted that this form of government is not for everybody. But for a moral people’

I am not religeous myself but plainly see the value of morality and family values. Address that.

Two extremes here. These problem kids and the bleeding heart that think their was some lesson in this audio.

Comment added by dw on 06.17.09

In response to dw:

I think that by reducing Esme’s story to ‘ problem kids’ and ‘the bleeding heart[s]’ in the way you have, you are participating in the problem that you, too, have identified.

Society’s issues are broad and deep, and belie, at every level of society, a fundamental lack of respect for oneself and others. There is certainly a trend of ‘privileged people with vision’ trying to find meaning in their own lives by solving the problems of socio-economically disadvantaged groups. The idea is not new; people of compassion and strong moral value have traditionally engaged with and tried to effect change in communities that they are not a part of, believing that members of those communities have neither the impetus nor the ability to make better lives for themselves. But not all those who sacrifice their own comfort in order to help others fall into this category. I cite Gandhi and Mother Theresa as examples.

There are so many other factors at play that it seems fatuous to imply that Miss Esme is part of the problem. By reacting to it as she has, she is a product of the problem. What is she attempting to do but address morality and family values? We can all take a lesson from her method of conflict mediation. These kids aren’t kids: listening to the issues they are dealing with, one needs to redefine childhood itself to accomodate their experiences.

I think that means we need to redefine ourselves in relationship to these problems. If we recognize that there is a problem, we need to work to address them rather than mask our sadness over the situation with name-calling and finger-pointing.

Comment added by Sarah-Jane on 06.18.09

What a great program! I married into a family of teachers and became one myself. As a teacher for a dozen years in East Harlem, Esme’s story brought back many memories.

Comment added by Al Lee on 06.19.09

Responding to Sara-Jane (a bigger picture?)

First, I have contributed nothig to soceity compared to her.

I intended to reduce the subtle misguided social/political message behind Miss Esme’s story and not her spirit of love and caring.

We all know the mainstream view of why these kids are disadvantaged and politicizing our schools is why they continue to be disadvantaged and manipulated by self serving social leaders and people of ambition on BOTH sides of the political isle.

This is a wealty nation (for now) and many feel guilty towards the term ‘disadvantaged’. Ever been robbed, threatened, harmed or intimidated by the ‘disadvantaged’? Tried to do business with them? Seen their appaling ignorance? If teachers can claim the ability to address that, then they are exposing their own ignorance as they fail.

Freedom must look pretty ugly to the needy indiividual taught a ‘blame others/entitlement mentality’ How does freedom look to the same individual that goes into the teaching profession.

If we were not a wealthy nation and were all working hard just to meet our needs for ourselves and loved ones, (like most of the rest of the world) these ‘problem kids’ would be seen in a different light and responsible adults of caliber would show us a better way.

I lack an answer but I do know that dicipline and respect for soceity are real important. Dicipline and respect are so important we invented ‘common law’ to enforce it.

Comment added by dw on 06.20.09

Beautifully written and narrated! People who demean teachers don’t realize that teaching in an urban public school is more than just a job: it is a way of life. It is a way of being that demands absolutely everything you’ve got. Esme’s essay portrays this in every sentence. The activities she does with her class are inventive and engaging. The descriptions of her children shine with the obvious delight she takes in them. It was a joy to listen to.

Comment added by laurie on 06.20.09

[…] I encourage you to do the same. […]

My seeming raw antagonism is against ignorance and not people. I stated understandings others may disagree with, while most comments here are sentemental feel good optomisms.

40 years of optomism for a failed agenda is alarming.

I’ll note that if I were a kid living in an inner city ghetto or crowded hood, and the media magnified evey bad abd wrong thing people are doing, and my hood looked like a not very nice place to be, .. well might be a little hostile to soceity myself.

Their is a censored history of the democratic party that paints an ugly picture of their whole timeline. We all know the evils of the repubs. Lets dethrone the Dems also and then focus on what good people do like Miss esme’

That sounds contricdictory in the context of my comments if you cannot see the point.

Comment added by dw on 07.02.09

I was enthralled by this story. The content and the style both captured me. As an educator and a product of an educator I understand the struggles and how rare it is to come by someone with such conviction, skills, compassion and understanding. I forwarded this link to my sister (a wonderful teacher herself) my mom (an educator of 40 plus years) and my neighbor (in his 3rd year of teaching 6th grade and comparable to Miss Esme). Thank you so much for sharing such inspiration!

Krishna in Oakland

Comment added by krishna on 09.10.09

I have read the book and listened to some of the podcast. I find the conversation between Sarah Jane and dw intriguing. They shed light on the complexity of interpretations of the “inner-city issues”. Of course, a story like this will be seen by some as an effort to address the question of how to improve life for people living in a poor, urban context – many will read it looking for “the solution” to these problems. As a teacher myself, what I found most compelling was the honesty of the author and her willingness to lay bare her experience of the context in which she was teaching. It is evident through Ms. Codell’s gumption and clear sense of what she wanted out of teaching and for her students that she saw herself as part of this struggle, and recognized the teacher’s ability to be a vehicle for change. The bittersweet part of the story, for me, (as all of this comment is of course my interpretation), comes at the end of the book when the reader for the first time sees clearly that Ms. Codell also has feet of clay. She uses her oversized spirit to mask her apprehensions, fears, and ultimately her sapped energy. In this moment, the reader may realize how hard won a battle we are engaged in. In the interactions between Ms. Codell and her students’ parents we see the fundamental issues that cause a whole community to be so dysfunctional: parents who neglect their children’s emotional and physical needs, perhaps because they themselves do not have the personal resources to draw upon for improvement. Instead, they do violence to their kids and to themselves when they indulge in self-destructive behavior. (Drugs, abusive relationships, fossilizing in a life/work path that denies the basic need for growth and therefore creates hopelessness.) At the end of the book, I really felt Ms. Codell’s hopelessness. Any sane person knows that they cannot hope to lead a full life (raising a family, having interests outside of their professional life, etc.) and work under these conditions. At the same time, anyone who reads her book or hears the podcast knows that we cannot hope to break the cycle of failure in downtrodden communities without people like Ms. Codell right there in the front lines. Teaching in such a context is like living in a house of cards. Some would like to say that it really shouldn’t be so hard, that there must be a way to break the poverty cycle in these communities. My question is: Is that way feasible, or will it break under the burden of its own weight – the weight that the people carrying out the plan must live under, day in and day out?

Comment added by Anna Yankelevich on 09.12.09

What an unbelievably well written, touching, hilarious, and fantastic story! Thank you so much, Madame Esme. This gets at everything that makes classrooms such amazing places, administrators such idiots, and kids so fantastic. What an fantastic teacher! I look forward to hearing other stories by Ms. Codell.

Comment added by dave s on 09.12.09

Long before I became a teacher, my mother gave me a new novel entitled “Educating Esme”. I put it aside because I felt that I would never be able to attain my dream of becoming a teacher. A few years later, my mother died and left me enough money to complete my education and attain my dream. At that point, while struggling in a school with students who would rather fight, sleep late, and find excuses not to work, I dusted off the novel she had given me and read the note she had written. She told me that she knew I would experience what Esme experienced because I too would choose to teach in a “challenging” school. Needless to say, when I need inspiration I re-read Esme’s diary and gain strength from Esme and my mother. Thank you.

Comment added by Jennie on 10.17.10

[…] holidays … it’s about having creative fun times with kids and learning together! . . HV061- Educating Esme : HearVox  http://hearingvoices.com/news/2009/06/hv061-educating-esme/ During her first year teaching […]

[…] Educating Esme is the journal kept by Esmé Raji Codell during her first year teaching fifth grade in a Chicago public school,  presented here as a radio show based on her book, part of the  Life Stories series on Chicago Public Radio: http://hearingvoices.com/news/2009/06/hv061-educating-esme/ […]


Comment added by Marcella on 07.23.13

[…] Educating Esme is the journal kept by Esmé Raji Codell during her first year teaching fifth grade in a Chicago public school,  presented here as a radio show based on her book, part of the  Life Stories series on Chicago Public Radio: http://hearingvoices.com/news/2009/06/hv061-educating-esme/ […]

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