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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

‘Listening Is Free'—How Administrators Can Support Teachers This Year

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 11, 2021 7 min read
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(This is the last post in a two part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the key lessons school administrators have learned from the pandemic, and how will going through that crisis inform your work moving forward?

In Part One, school administrators Mike Janatovich, Ryan Huels, Elvis Epps, and Amber Teamann share their answers.

Today, Mark Estrada and Dennis Griffin Jr. finish up the series.

‘Principled Leadership’

Mark Estrada is the superintendent of the Lockhart Independent school district in Lockhart, Texas. Estrada has experience as a middle school social studies teacher, secondary school principal, and elementary principal. He is an ASCD 2014 Emerging Leader and doctoral fellow at the University of Texas-Austin Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP):

Leadership matters. Much has been learned about school leadership during this pandemic. While traits of effective leadership may not have changed, as I reflect on the last 16 months, there are certainly specific leadership tenets that have become increasingly important to engage the staff and community to collectively address the ever-changing challenges that we face together.

As we begin a new school year, it is important for school leaders to reflect on our roles and responsibilities for addressing the “urgent and now,” but it is equally important to simultaneously and strategically plan and create a future that makes our schools resilient. Central to this charge of creating a future of thriving schools is addressing the teaching conditions that are driving away teachers from the profession at an unsustainable pace. As school leaders, we must stop and reflect on why so many teachers are leaving the profession completely.

While there may be some issues outside of our immediate control, what teachers want most is largely within our control. I have learned that teachers and staff understand the complexity of decisionmaking and know that there are no solutions that everyone will agree with. According to a recent EdWeek article, “When asked about the likelihood that they’ll leave teaching in the next two years, 54 percent of teachers said they are ‘somewhat’ or ‘very likely’ to do so. That’s compared to just 34 percent of teachers who said they would have answered that question with ‘somewhat’ or ‘very likely’ if they’d been asked in the fall of 2019 (before the pandemic began).” Further, the article states, “Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the report is that even while many teachers feel underappreciated and worn out, there are some concrete steps administrators can take to increase the odds they’ll stay—but it all starts with listening.”

Listening is free. How we spend our time and allocate our resources demonstrates to others what we value, so investing time to fully listen to our teachers is paramount to leading our schools.

Leading during a pandemic has also reminded me that while school is for academics, it is much more than that for kids. Schools are the places that provide food for so many. Schools are the places in which children receive the social and emotional support that they need in order to learn. Schools are the places where kids learn about who they are as people and get to participate in activities that they love. Schools are oftentimes the only places where kids have opportunities to become artists, athletes, musicians, and the skilled workforce of our communities. We must do all that we can to protect the learning and services that help our kids thrive.

Lastly, leading during crisis demands principled leadership grounded in values that drive decisions. In Lockhart, those values were developed by listening to our staff as they revealed what being a leader means to them, identifying key values. They are being “Locked on Excellence,” having a “LockHeart for People,” and “UnLocking Potential” of ourselves and others. When leaders clearly define and articulate their values, we can feel more confident as we align our decisions with those values, honoring the priorities and expectations of those we serve.

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Bringing People Together

Dennis Griffin Jr. serves as the principal of Brown Deer Elementary School in Wisconsin. He has seven years of experience as a middle school educator and is entering his sixth year as an administrator. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in educational leadership at Cardinal Stritch University:

When I think about the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the world, our nation, and challenged the ideology of our institutions of learning, I received several validations in regards to my values and beliefs.

First and foremost, we have to acknowledge that there are a number of inequities that have and will continue to marginalize our youth unless we are willing to challenge our current systems. This marginalization creates a vicious cycle that many are not afforded the opportunity to escape from childhood into their adult lives. This cycle was present prior to the pandemic. As we worry about a term coined “learning loss” what will be the impact of “learning lost” on the inequities that were enhanced during the pandemic?

At the same time, I also witnessed the culmination of shared values and beliefs that allowed for children to have equitable opportunities to learn in some arenas that would have otherwise marginalized them even more. Yes, it required us to pivot on a dime. Yes, it required us to engage in different ways of educating. Yes, it required us to assess how we have and would allocate resources. If we had the ability to place technology in the hands of our students in the midst of the pandemic to address the inequities that we feared would result in learning lost, does that mean that we already had the resources to level the playing field prior to the pandemic? The question really is, were the efforts of our culminating changes worth the possibilities the future would hold for our students?

In full transparency, as the instructional leader of my school, I made one massive mistake during the pandemic. I sacrificed bringing people together.

The greatest asset to any school or culture is the ability to bring people together to learn from one another. When we come together, our values are on full display, and we leave pieces of ourselves with one another. Humans are not meant to function in isolation, and the pandemic has led to the propensity to operate in this manner. In an effort to provide more time for planning and to take items off of the plates of educators, I decided not to bring our teams together to allow them to have more individual time to plan. There was so much new learning happening, and I was concerned about our capacity to navigate new learning and remember that as educators we were also worried and suffering during the pandemic.

I tell my team that we are a family-first organization and they are part of my family. In order for me to live that value, I must be aware of the social and emotional well-being of the individuals that I work with. The way to gauge and assess the social and emotional well-being of those individuals that you care for requires you to “BE WITH YOUR PEOPLE.”

The greatest lesson that was to be learned during the pandemic is/was that we need to find a way to bring people together. Bringing people together allows us to solve problems around our shared values. More importantly, bringing people together ensures that we are not alone, as we are not designed to operate in solitude.

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Thanks to Mark and Dennis for contributing their thoughts today!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first nine years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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