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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

Response: Administrators Shouldn’t Try ‘Too Many Initiatives’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 19, 2019 14 min read
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(This is the last post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here ; Part Two here; Part Three here and Part Four here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen an administrator make (or, if you are an administrator, that you’ve made)? What should have been done, instead?

Commentaries from Anne Vilen, Marcy Webb, Dr. Jason Kotch, Roxanna Elden, Baruti Kafele, and Dr. Manuel Rustin “kicked off” this five-part series. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anne, Marcy, and Jason on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dr. PJ Caposey, Sarah Said, Amy Fast, Andrew Miller, Anthony Kim, and Edward Cosentino shared their observations.

In Part Three, Jen Schwanke, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Harvey Alvy, Michael Haggen, James Erekson, and Michael D. Toth wrote about their experiences.

In Part Four, Julie Hasson, Ryan Huels, David Bosso, Cindy Terebush, and Kelly Wickham Hurst contributed their thoughts.

This five-part series is wrapped-up today with commentaries from Dr. Lynell Powell, Stuart Ablon, Alisha Pollastri, Diane Mora, and many comments from readers.

Response From Dr. Lynell Powell

Dr. Lynell Powell is an elementary school administrator and author of drjoyblog.com:

This past summer I attended the National Association of Elementary School Principals annual conference. One of the keynote speakers, Sean Covey, stated, “Most people have far too many initiatives. Stay focused on your main purpose. There will always be more good ideas than the capacity to execute them.” This statement resonated with me on a personal level and also professionally because it has definite implications for school improvement.

As instructional leaders, school administrators communicate what is important as it relates to student learning, but sometimes there are too many “what” conversations. That is, conversations that are primarily focused on structures, strategies, programs, philosophies, and ideas. Administrators can make the mistake of sharing or trying too many initiatives, causing feelings of frustration among the school community.

One of the tell-tale signs that there are too many instructional initiatives in a school is mass confusion. This is evident when faculty and staff are unaware of what exactly is important and the resources that are aligned to addressing those areas. Another sign is lack of enthusiasm for instructional decisions. In fact, they can begin to have an unhealthy outlook about their teaching and learning environment. It is critical that an administrator is knowledgeable of the specific instructional needs of their school as well as have the ability to prioritize and leverage appropriate tools and personnel to support instruction.

I have always felt most successful alongside administrators who know the power of alignment. Effective administrators have a clear vision that includes instructional goals that are both challenging and within reach. They invest time and energy garnering schoolwide support of these goals through shared leadership opportunities, collaboration, and ongoing professional learning. Most importantly, they have learned the art of creating a culture that is responsive to students and not initiatives.

Response From Stuart Ablon & Alisha Pollastri

Stuart Ablon and Alisha Pollastri are clinical psychologists from the Think:Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and are co-authors of the book, The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach. They develop, study, and teach Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS), an evidence-based approach for understanding and helping children who engage in challenging behaviors such as aggression, oppositionality, withdrawal, and academic avoidance:

The biggest mistake we have seen administrators make is suspending or expelling a student even when they know it won’t help address the challenging behavior to which they are responding. Oftentimes, administrators do this in response to demands from teachers or parents who want to “teach the student a lesson.” This does not work. It does not teach anything and, instead, frustrates the student, further alienating the student from adults who should be helping, not pushing the student away.

Instead, school leaders should first empathize with angry teachers and parents and assert their agreement that there is an urgent need to stop the problematic behavior and to hold the student accountable for that behavior. This empathy and aligning is important, so teachers and parents understand that all adults are working toward the same goals. Then school leaders can help their community members understand that there are a variety of ways to move forward toward those goals, and together they should pick a way forward that attains those goals while also not causing other problems. Punishment via detention and suspension is one way to “hold the student accountable,” but it does nothing to address the goal of putting a stop to the problematic behavior and is likely to cause other problems like resentment, disengagement, and isolation, which are all risk factors for future violence.

Students that engage in challenging behaviors are lacking the skill, not the will, to behave better. Rather than reacting to challenging behavior by excluding the student, adults should instead engage that student. There is no better way to hold a student accountable than to ask the student to engage with adults, decide together on a reasonable way to repair any harm done, and work toward building the lagging skills that got them into trouble. And because improved skills make it more likely that the student will respond better next time, this approach has the benefit of putting a stop to the problematic behavior, and it doesn’t result in unintended side effects like isolation and disengagement. In fact, engaging students in this way builds strong, helping relationships between adults and students, which is a key protective factor.

Detentions, suspensions, and expulsions don’t teach skills, and they cause more problems than they solve. Exclusionary practices just kick the problem down the road or into someone else’s school. The focus of discipline needs to be on helping challenging students develop the skills they need to improve their behavior.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, M.A. Ed., has been teaching writing in ESL programs internationally and in the U.S. for 12 years. Currently, she is passionate about teaching writing and literacy skills to SLIFE (Students With Limited Or Interrupted Formal Education) students who are also ELs at East High School in Kansas City, Mo.:

I teach in a large, public high school that is home to students of many life experiences. Teenagers are teenagers no matter what country they come from or what their socioeconomic existence is. And, they are loud!

I was constantly bewildered (and hovered between amusement and consternation) that building administrators would shout at students to stop shouting in the hallways during passing periods. One day this practice escalated to a point where I simply could no longer ignore it.

As best as I can remember, one of the administrative-team members felt several of my students had been shouting in the hallways despite his repeated shouts to stop shouting and get to class. He actually went so far as to chase the students in question into my room, red in the face, shouting all the while that he would be back to deal with them. After he left, I asked my kids what had happened and prepared to listen with an open mind. They appeared honestly confused, hurt, and slightly angry by the administrator’s behavior toward them. Our class was now starting late, and the students were still wound up and having a hard time settling down. So was I. I’d felt I had been getting much better at settling kids into eight minutes of silent reading without a lot of cajoling, but one of the students in particular was still too wound up to settle in to our routine. To my discredit, I snapped at him because I just wanted silence for reading time and to get our class back on track. He reacted to me with shock but immediately got silent.

I could hear myself silently talking to myself, trying to justify how I had lashed out at him. I couldn’t focus on the words in the book I held, but I could focus on my breathing, hoping that my students couldn’t tell I was just as distracted as they were. In those moments, I realized just how powerful modeling and how swiftly negative behaviors engulf us. I knew what I had to do to begin remedying the situation.

When the timer sounded the end of our eight minutes of silent reading, I remained seated in the chair I’d chosen among my students. I closed my book and sat silently for a few seconds. I could feel my students waiting warily for what we were going to do next. I made eye contact with each one, making sure my eyes landed last on the student who’d borne the brunt of my frustration. As simply and directly as I could, I said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. I was frustrated that we had already spent so much time talking about what happened and I just wanted everyone to be silent and start reading. I’m sorry that I took it out on you. I hope you can forgive me.”

No one said a word, but we finished the class without any further disruptions. The administrator never did come back to follow through on his warning.

I made an appointment with the administrator in question the next morning. I related the details of what had happened and how disappointed I was in myself that I’d gotten caught up in all of the emotional energy of the moment. I asked him for clarification of what had prompted his initial reaction to my students. I explained my views to him about modeling the behavior we want from others and asked him if he would be willing to come to my classroom to just sit and talk with my students about what happened. If he felt after talking with them that he owed them an apology, that would be even more modeling we could benefit from. To my delight, he agreed to put himself on the line this way.

The next day after he left my classroom I asked my students how they felt. Their views about Mr. Vice Principal were largely positive. This one situation hasn’t entirely stopped the hallway shouting by either age group, but it demonstrates the powerful effects our behaviors have on each other.

Responses From Readers

Maureen Cullnan:

In Chicago, it has to be the many principals who did not follow the mandatory reporter law and report the thousands of instances of child sexual assault, as reported by the Chicago Tribune in their series, Betrayed. The numbers are staggering. Principals have long been known to retaliate against staff who would want to report.

Frustrated Staff Who Are About to Quit:

A mistake that I’ve seen an administrator make is when a parent, who has a history of fabricating stories, calls and claims that things were done or said, so the administrator calls the staff member into the office and starts with “what the staff member has done wrong” and only at the end will listen to the staff member.

It has made it so hard for so many staff members that we have to keep detailed notes on every encounter—good, bad, or indifferent—we have with almost every student.

And even after multiple staff members all walk in with their own notes and explanations, the administrator will say, “Then why would (the parent) say that?”

Again, the parent will use any way available to make a claim against staff just to make getting aid for her child easier.

B4jm Ross:

I worked at an elementary school as an ed aide. A staff who had been there before me and who was known to bully select staff subjected her behavior towards me. When I reported the unprofessional behavior with exact incidents and my attempts to resolve the issue, the Principal’s response was for ME to avoid the person! Like I hadn’t tried that! Needless to say they still have a workplace bullying problem, and I no longer work there.


I’ll give a few, from different school systems, not necessarily in order, but all superintendent-related:

1) Dissing teachers to the school committee during contract negotiations, with teachers in attendance.

2) Bringing new grading software at the last moment (we’re a week from the end of school and most haven’t seen it yet); I just can’t wait until we have to learn it in a day next August.

3) As a new super, claiming there’s no money, laying off teachers, all while creating new superintendent’s office positions at the high end of the salary scale. And doing this when school enrollment is falling drastically (down about 250-300 students in the past decade [from over a thousand to about 750]).

4) Failing to trust your subordinates and having to touch and check every single thing—like whether the history department can get away with 2 less textbooks for the following year.

5) Hiring the son of a “close personal friend and colleague” for head of IT when it’s obvious that he is totally unqualified (still in college, no computer background, not even an ‘intro to computers’ course) compared to more than a dozen other applicants. Eventually said director had to be let go and the search re-started.

Alice Mercer:

I had an administrator that didn’t follow through on a bullying allegation I referred to him in the first trimester. The end of year came and the parents blamed me for never following through on what happened when something else came up.

Thanks to Lynell, Stuart, Alisha, Diana, and to many readers, for their contributions!

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