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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.

Professional Development Opinion

Our Favorite Teachers & Why We Remember Them

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 16, 2020 20 min read
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Editor’s Note: As I wrote in Part One, our minds are obviously on COVID-19, not on our favorite teachers. I’ve curated many useful resources about coping with school closures at The Best Advice On Teaching K-12 Online (If We Have To Because Of The Coronavirus) - Please Make More Suggestions! and will soon be publishing a series of posts here where teachers will be sharing their experiences in this new environment (see Do You Want to Write About Your Experience Teaching Online After School Closures?). Please consider contributing your thoughts.

In this time of crisis, reading and thinking about non-coronavirus topics can be a welcome diversion now and then. I put thinking about and reading about our favorite teachers into that “welcome diversion” category.

Today, Antoinette Perez, Cindy Garcia, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Shaeley Santiago, Rita Platt, Jen Schwanke, and Barry Saide offer their memories of their favorite teachers.

“Words of affirmation”

Antoinette Perez is currently a high school ELA and ELD teacher at Buena High School in Ventura, Calif. She also works as a language and cultural instructor to adult ELLs. She enjoys cooking, watching baseball, and traveling around the world to visit her former international students:

As educators, we tend to think back and reflect on the teachers who made a difference in our lives. Some of those teachers pushed us to do our best and some of them were powerful enough to make us believe we could do anything. I can remember quite a few teachers who had a gift for teaching and continue to influence my instruction today.

My favorite teacher and one who made all the difference in both my personal life and in my career was my 7th grade reading-intervention teacher. Like many adolescents, I wasn’t fond of reading, mostly because I couldn’t relate to the stories we read or understand many of the concepts we read about. I struggled and I fell behind grade level in reading. Much to my dismay, I was pulled out of my English class a few days each week to complete a reading-intervention program with Mrs. Gustafson. I remember her classroom being comfortable, welcoming, and safe. And Mrs. Gustafson was all of those things, too. She created engaging lessons that helped me access complex concepts and make connections. She created a learning environment where taking risks was encouraged. No matter how wrong I was at times, she gave me credit for trying. Her words of affirmation showed me that she believed in me. She rewarded what I did well. I learned to love my small-group instruction because it catered to my individual needs. Mrs. Gustafson saw me as an individual rather than as a number. She cared, and it showed. I knew that I wanted to be like her and one day make a difference in students’ lives.

It’s not too often we get to thank our favorite teachers for what they’ve taught us, but it’s less often that we get to learn from them for longer than one school year. I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to be a student of Mrs. Gustafson’s once again more than 10 years after she first opened my eyes to the true gift of teaching. In the final semester of my teacher-credential program, I went out on a limb and registered for a course instructed by a familiar name: Shelley Gustafson. I thought it could just be a coincidence that two people in Long Beach, Calif. had the same name, but I was hopeful. And when I walked into that classroom to a familiar face, I knew I was getting in to the right profession. Fighting back the tears, I began to tell her who I was when she interrupted, “Nettie, I remember you!” I thanked her for believing in me, for inspiring me to continue learning, and for showing me that teaching is a gift that keeps on giving. Much of who I am as a teacher today stems from both what I learned from Mrs. Gustafson 20 years ago as a middle schooler and almost a decade ago as a teacher-in-the-making.

Making connections

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active on Twitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

When I think about Ms. Anita Moore, I always smile and think about how fortunate I was that she was my 4th and 5th grade teacher. It was evident even to a 9-year-old that Ms. Moore loved being a teacher. She had high structures in her classroom, but it was a safe place where we were encouraged to share, think, and express ourselves. All of her students knew that she cared about us learning and our well-being. Ms. Moore never let us give up if we were stuck, and she worked with us until we figured out a solution.

One of the memories that always stuck with me was Ms. Moore conducting a read-aloud and starting to cry because the main character in the story reminded her of her grandmother. She paused to share about her relationship with her grandmother and made the connection as to how that relationship was helping understand the main messages in the story.

Ms. Moore tried her best to make a connection with each student in her classroom. She knew what are interests were and about our families. She used that information to bring our interests into the classroom. One of the biggest reasons that Ms. Moore will always be my favorite teacher is because she helped my love of reading grow. She made books of various genres available in our classroom and to take home. She suggested books that she thought we would enjoy, and today I realize that it was books that she hoped would get us hooked!

Ms. Moore also went beyond classroom instruction. She decided that our school should have a choir and that all of her students should audition. If not for her initiative, I would never have participated in this type of extracurricular activity. She was known to drive alongside students as they walked home if they were walking home alone and their homes were a bit too far from school. When it was time for the annual 5th grade weekend camping trip, my parents refused to let me attend the trip. Ms. Moore came to my home to talk to my parents to persuade them to let me attend. I was still not allowed to go, but it was amazing to me that a teacher would visit my home in order to help me be part of a school tradition and take part in the experience with my classmates. Ms. Moore was a wonderful example of a caring teacher who worked very hard to help her students learn and feel successful.

“He made me see things about myself that I never realized”

Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is a 3rd grade teacher in Farmingdale, N.Y. She previously taught 6th grade and kindergarten. Kathleen is one of the co-authors of the Two Writing Teachers and the co-director of the Long Island Writing Project. She blogs at Courage Doesn’t Always Roar:

I’ve had so many wonderful teachers through the years that have helped shape my life. One teacher who especially stands out in my memory was Mr. Patrick Gallagher. Mr. Gallagher was my AP U.S. History teacher in high school, and he was also one of the advisers of Key Club, a service club in which I was a member and an officer.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Though Mr. Gallagher was my teacher over 20 years ago, I remember that he made me feel like I was special. He made me see things about myself that I never realized. He encouraged me as a student leader and told me that he saw me as an inclusive person who always tried to welcome others into a situation. He showed that he believed in me, and I wanted to live up to his good opinion of me.

On days when I feel a little lost or low, I still pull out the letter of recommendation he wrote on my behalf for a scholarship for which I applied. It’s been so many years, but those words have the power to make me once again feel worthy and capable.

From Mr. Gallagher, I learned to shine a light on students’ strengths and help them see the special qualities they might not know they have. I look for ways to tell students all the good I see in them, in writing, so they, too, can look back someday and remember that a teacher saw in them a bright student with so much potential.

Encouraging creativity

Shaeley Santiago is an English-learner strategist for the Ames Community school district in Ames, Iowa. She has also served as an ESL instructional coach and a secondary ESL teacher in both Ames and Perry, Iowa. She is a big fan of social media for teachers; you can follow her on Twitter at @HSeslteacher:

My favorite teacher was my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Judith Best. From the first day of class, it was clear she incorporated new ideas and instructional strategies to improve her practice. She was an engaging teacher who provided choice in her lessons, advocated for her students, and cared about us as young people.

At the beginning of the school year, Mrs. Best asked us to decorate the name tags for our desks. She provided the parameters for the assignment but left the specifics up to us. Unlike most of my classmates, I decided on an elaborate pattern where each letter of my name was colored differently from the next. I wasn’t discouraged from this unusual approach or forced to rush to complete my work. Instead, Mrs. Best encouraged my creativity on a type of task that today might be viewed as a waste of valuable classroom time. In any case, the project allowed me to explore an idea I had while helping Mrs. Best get to know me better.

One of my all-time favorite units in school was a multiweek social studies simulation in Mrs. Best’s class about settlers moving to the Midwest. We drew a card to be assigned our “family” and its circumstances. Then each day in class, someone would roll the dice to determine the weather and other daily events in the simulation. We had to make choices ranging from buying food to upgrading our property. My family was the deJongs, and we farmed a small acreage just outside of town. While I knew a little about farming because my grandparents were wheat farmers, the responsibility of making choices for my “family” and then experiencing the simulated consequences of those decisions over time taught me some valuable life lessons. We also learned about how a community might work together to support each other through difficulties such as natural disasters.

I also still vividly remember Mrs. Best incorporating drawing as a method for helping us develop the lesser-used hemisphere of our brains. She had taken a course where she’d learned about the technique, so she explained some of the research behind it to us. Then she asked us to draw with our nondominant hand. We did activities like this several times during the school year. Looking back now through my own lens as a teacher, I admire that she was applying what she had learned from her course. As her student, I knew from her own efforts to improve and her explanation about why we were doing what we were that she had my best interests at heart.

Mrs. Best also advocated for me to be evaluated for the gifted program. She had seen qualities in me that suggested I would benefit from opportunities for extended learning. Although my standardized-test scores weren’t high enough to automatically qualify me for the program, she still argued that I should participate with another student from my class. Her belief in me and my abilities was a boost for my self-confidence at a time when adolescence and all its awkwardness was fast approaching.

Although I had no plans at that point in my life to be an educator, Mrs. Best’s approach to teaching has had an impact on my beliefs about quality instruction. I believe strongly that engaging students through creative, real-world activities and choice in assignments is essential for maximizing learning. I also strive to stay current in my teaching practice by applying the techniques and research I learn about through professional development. Finally, my path in middle and high school was directly impacted because Mrs. Best advocated on my behalf for access to the gifted program. As her name so aptly conveys, she was my best teacher.

Being “nonjudgmental”

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

My 10th grade driver’s education teacher wore her hair in a curly puff. She wore bright pink lipstick, colorful scarves, mini skirts with rainboots, and was never without a smile. At the start of class, she stood by the door and welcomed her students. When the hour was up, she stood by the door and said goodbye with this line, “Have a great day! If you ever want to hang out, stop by! I always have hot tea and oranges ready for a visit!” My 10th grade driver’s education teacher’s name was Rita Refner. Mrs. Refner was (is?) wonderful.

Over the years, I have often reflected on why I loved Mrs. Refner so much and why her class (driver’s ed, of all things!) inspired me to become an educator. In the end, I think it boils down to how she carried herself and how she treated me.

Mrs. Refner embodied some the character traits that I now recognize as aligned with my own core values. She was nonjudgmental, friendly, funny, encouraging, and completely and totally comfortable with herself.

When I met her, I was what we called, an “Ash Streeter.” It was 1983, and at that time, students were allowed to smoke outside of the school, and I was often found on the front steps of the Ash Street entrance of the high school with a cigarette in hand. In those days (and now, if I’m honest), I marched to the beat of my own drum. I dressed different from other kids (think June Cleaver but with neon pink pumps and punkish blond streaks in black hair.) I skipped classes as frequently as I attended them, and my grades were low. But, I was kind to others, reasonably smart, and liked to laugh. Mrs. Refner saw that. She treated me with a respect that I wasn’t used to from teachers, and I reveled in it.

Mrs. Refner wasn’t joking about the tea and oranges. I know because I often stayed after class to hang out with her over a cup of chamomile and half an orange. We chatted about all kinds of things and found out we had much in common. Chief among them was that we had both suffered from the behavior of people who were alcoholics. Mrs. Refner had lost her husband when a drunk driver crashed into his car, and I was raised by alcohol- and drug-addicted parents who often fell short in the good-parenting department. The combination of her friendly, kind, and nonjudgmental manner allowed me to open up to her in a way I had never opened up before.

Once I opened up, Mrs. Refner encouraged me to use my experiences to reach out and make a difference for others. She encouraged me to attend Alateen, a support group for teenagers who are affected by alcoholism. When that didn’t feel like a good fit for me, together we devised a plan to develop and coordinate a Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) club in the high school. Being a part of that club helped me learn that I was a capable leader and my efforts could help others.

When I think of Mrs. Refner, what stands out most clearly was her willingness to be unapologetically herself. Mrs. Refner put on no airs, showed no pretense, had no need to be “normal.” She, like me, was different and she wore her differences like a name tag that said, “I’m ME! And, you will like me!” What a powerful example she was.

More than 30 years after I met her, I still think of her often and am grateful for the gifts she gave me. I don’t smoke anymore, and there is no Ash Street entrance at the school where I am the principal. But I do wear that invisible name tag that says, “I am ME!” and I work daily to be as nonjudgmental, kind, funny, encouraging, and completely comfortable in my own skin. Thank you, Mrs. Refner.

Trauma should not be a “lonely” thing

Ms. Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She has established her voice in school leadership by contributing frequently to literacy and leadership publications and has presented at multiple conferences at the state and national level. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

The year I entered 3rd grade, my parents’ farm was in the grips of a drought that dried up the entire Midwest. My father’s hay crop withered and died. With no hay to sell, there was no money. With no money, there was no food. We were a family of six. I was very hungry for quite some time.

My father grew sullen and silent, my mother sad and defiant. Though it would be many painful years before they would finally divorce, the drought years were the worst because the farmhouse seemed to be waiting for something—thunder, lightning, heavy rain, a big fight, something to happen.

As kids do, I soldiered on, not having words or systems to manage anything otherwise. My sisters reacted similarly. We did not discuss it. At the dinner table, we gulped at my mother’s home-canned green beans, supplemented with fruit cocktail from Dollar General. We dipped saltines in water, better to swallow with our choked throats. When school started, I packed three apples for lunch every day, because there were plenty in the cellar: towers of bushel boxes full of Macintosh, bought at the Bargain Bin for a song. Kids made fun of me in the cafeteria, and I hissed at them: “Shut up. It’s just that I love apples.”

Early in November, Miss Troutman pulled me aside. She gave me two gifts. The first was a ham sandwich. The second was a journal.

I don’t know how she knew. Perhaps it was my bony legs and dirty, too-short jeans. Perhaps she saw the apples. Maybe she just guessed. Regardless, she found a way to help without humiliating me or making me talk about my breaking heart. She offered dignity and kindness that still makes me swoon with gratitude. “Silly me,” she said. “I accidentally made an extra sandwich this morning.”

With it, she handed me a beautiful black leather journal, thick with pages of unlined white paper. “You don’t need to show it to me as you write. It can be private. Your very own.” I’d long wanted to journal but didn’t have a special place to do it. When there is no money for ground beef, there is certainly no money for journals. I took it home and began experimenting as a poet, a writer, an artist, a dreamer—a little person who could imagine a better ending to the story.

Miss Troutman made many accidental sandwiches that year, fluffy white Wonder Bread stuffed with chipped ham and slathered with delicious, oily mayonnaise. She would slip it into my lunch box when no one was looking.

These days, we are discussing children and trauma more openly and honestly. We are legitimizing how it feels to be a very young person who is scared, sad, sorry, and ashamed, a young person who still has to get up and wash her face and get on the school bus. We recognize trauma takes many forms—hunger, abandonment, physical pain, loneliness, fear, racism, and all sorts of other horrible, painful things—and kids all feel it and react, differently. Trauma is not, and should not be, a lonely and secretive thing. People—kids—often want to deal with it alone, but they may need someone to notice, and teachers are often the ones to do just that.

Facebook recently reconnected Miss Troutman and I; in a private message, I thanked her for her kindness. She was gracious, humble, and gentle, just as I remembered her. “It’s rare that I can still see the 10-year-old in the face of one of my students,” she wrote, “But I can see your young self in your pictures. Except I see peace and confidence now. I’m glad about that.”

I told her my young face is still there, in me, because she helped me preserve it.

“A daily structure”

Barry Saide is the proud principal of Roosevelt School, in Manville, N.J. Prior to becoming principal, Barry was a director of curriculum & instruction, supervisor of curriculum & instruction, and elementary classroom teacher. This is his 20th year in education:

My favorite teacher when attending school was my elementary school teacher Mrs. Pace. She looped with us from 3rd through 5th grades. Her consistent presence and approach each day provided comfort for me. I was an anxious learner, uncomfortable with change, and quiet in disposition. Rarely did I raise my hand, offer a suggestion, or ask a question. I didn’t want to stand out in any way possible. I would rather sit there, potentially soak all the learning in, and hope that if I didn’t understand something that one of my peers would ask that question. If one didn’t, I would go home and count on my mother or father to assist me. If that didn’t happen, I didn’t learn it.

Though I was quiet and painfully shy (on a 1 to 10 scale I was an 11), because Mrs. Pace provided a daily structure, reviewed the classroom expectations each day, solicited input from us to build future lessons and units, and got to know us individually, I was able to grow beyond my own self-imposed limitations. Mrs. Pace spent a portion of each day with each of us, reviewing what our accomplishments were and setting our goals for the following day. She knew I was a strong writer, avid reader, and struggling mathematician. She built opportunities within lessons for me to read aloud my free-writes and favorite reading passages and others to share their strengths, too. When I became a teacher, I realized she did this to foster a community of learners—students who would feel comfortable knowing their peers were a resource they could go to when they needed support, suggestion, or guidance on a topic. That communal, inclusive feeling was the overarching goal I created each year in the classroom when I became a teacher.

My formative years with Mrs. Pace as my teacher taught me many of the concepts within my philosophical approach to human-centered education I used as a teacher. Now as an administrator: getting to know each individual, coaching people from their strengths, continually raising expectations slightly based on prior accomplishments (and providing the support to achieve those expectations), and accepting every person for who they are by seeing who they could be with support and guidance is who I strive to be. Without my 3rd through 5th grade years, that doesn’t happen.

Thanks to Antoinette, Cindy, Kathleen, Shaeley, Rita, Jen, and Barry for their contributions!

(This is the second post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Who was your favorite teacher when you were attending school, and why was she/he your favorite?

Part One shared responses from Elizabeth Villanueva, Jessica Levine, Betty Cárdenas, and Jenny Vo. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with the four of them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

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 or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues


Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

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

Look for Part Three in a few days....

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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.