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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Educators Share Who Influenced Their Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 30, 2018 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

Who has had the biggest influence on your teaching and why?

We teachers have had many people—mentors, people who taught us when we were in school, even students—influence how we teach.

In this three-part series, many educators will share who has had the greatest influence on their teaching and why. Perhaps out of these stories we’ll all learn what it really takes to have an impact on educators teaching today and those who will teach tomorrow.

Today, Rita Platt, Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Pernille Ripp, and Jenny Edwards share their reflections. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Cynthia and Pernille on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

I should begin by sharing who has influenced my teaching the most, and I have several to share:

Mary Ochs and Larry McNeil were my mentors and supervisors during the majority of my 19-year community organizing career that preceded my becoming a high school teacher 15years ago. The lessons I learned as an organizer have served me well in all aspects of life, including in the classroom. Public broadcaster KQED interviewed me on this very topic: Books Teachers Share: Larry Ferlazzo and Rules For Radicals.

My organizing career provided me with the broad strokes and guiding vision of what I wanted to bring into the classroom. I was lucky enough to work in a school that contracted with Kelly Young at Pebble Creek Labs for several years to provide professional development assistance, and he was able to show me how to convert an organizing perspective into specific instructional strategies in the classroom.

Finally, it’s safe to say that I have learned a lot from my students over the years in ESL, intervention, “mainstream,” and International Baccalaureate classes. “The best laid plans of mice and men go awry,” and students have often brought my plans down-to-earth and made them better learning opportunities for everyone.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls school district in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

Over the course of my 21 years as an educator, I have had a great many mentors, intentional and incidental, and all have had an impact on my practice. Two, however, stand out as my greatest teachers. My daughter, Azalea is in the 4th grade and her brother, my son, Kenneth, is in the 5th.They have been tremendously influential in my evolution as a teacher.

While I would never suggest that teachers need to be parents to be effective, in my case, being a mother made me a better teacher. Watching my children interact with their own teachers and talk about their schooling provided a fertile ground for reflection. Through my children, I have seen the classroom from a more empathetic lens.

Lessons I learned from my kids.

  1. Treat every student as you’d like to have your own children treated. When I first began teaching, a wise colleague told me to teach as if my student’s parents were watching. That was good advice but it didn’t hit home on an emotional level until I sent my own children to school. Then, I learned, in a visceral way, that every student is someone’s beloved and all should be treated like the precious gifts they are. When I send Azalea and Kenneth to school each day, I want their teachers to see the wonder in each of them and I know the parents of my students want me to see the wonder in their babies, be they 7 or 17.

  2. Differentiation is critical. When you have a child, you think you know something about raising kids. Until you have another child and you realize you don’t know as much as you thought you did! Every child is different. All have different interests, strengths, needs, and hopes. Yet, all deserve the best adults have to offer. In my work as a teacher, I owe each student at least a year’s growth in a year’s time and that means instruction must be differentiated. Kenneth lives and breathes football. Azalea loves all things macabre. They don’t read the same books. But, they both read. To each what s/he needs; a mantra for parents and teachers alike.

  3. It is okay for students to me mad at their teacher. Not every student will like everything. Sometimes students get mad at adults. That is okay. Teachers, like parents, have an obligation to help children learn, try new things, work hard, push past failure, and meet their goals. Teachers, like parents, sometimes have to discipline children (with love and respect.) That means that sometimes my students, like my own kids, get mad at me. A full range of emotions is a part of any healthy relationship and a teacher’s relationship with her/his students must be healthy to be effective.

  4. Fun matters. Love matters. Most weeks I ask Azalea and Kenneth questions about what they learned and how they learned it. Invariably, when they had fun and felt loved they learned more. They come home bubbling with energy when they can tell me about something funny that happened in class, about a teacher that made them feel special, or describe an exciting lesson. When they are enervated and seem sick of school, I ask, “Did the kids in your class laugh today?” The answer is usually, that they did not. Laughter and love are human needs. As a mom, I know how true that is. I bring that knowledge to my teaching. I strive to laugh freely and often with my students. I nurture them and show them that I love them.

I am with my students for a huge chunk of each day. Of course, I know that I am not the parent of all of my students (only two of them!) I also know that my work as a mom has made me a better teacher. Thank you, Kenneth. Thank you, Azalea.

Response From Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson

Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson is an educator with over 30 years of experience in the classroom and as an administrator. Currently, she serves as an educational consultant facilitating presentations throughout the nation regarding children who live in poverty, diverse student populations, equity and social justice, school connectedness, and social/emotional learning:

I was in 8th grade at Warrensburg Jr. High School when I met the teacher who would forever change my life and have the biggest influence my teaching. His name was Mr. Ken Bell. He served as my English/Drama teacher. It was not about the content that he taught but what he believed about what I had to offer. Mr. Bell saw something in me that I had not even observed in myself.

Mr. Bell always encouraged me to talk and to participate in class. This type of thing does not sound unusual for a teacher to ask a student but I suffered from a severe speech impediment that always interfered with what I wanted to communicate. I also had been placed in special education because of learning disabilities. People often made fun of me because of the things I struggled with daily. This type of treatment began in elementary school when I could not read aloud until I was in the 4th grade. Mr. Bell was different from other teachers because it did not matter that I lived in poverty, stuttered, was in special classes, or that I struggled with reading. He focused on what I could do.

After class one day, Mr. Bell asked to speak with me. He said he wanted to give me a script to read and to eventually memorize. My heart started beating fast. Mr. Bell gave me the script to take home that night. It was entitled, In White America by Martin B. Duberman. I struggled with the words. He coached and showed me how to assign a different voice each time someone else was speaking. Eventually, I learned the words and the history of the script. In White America, a documentary play illustrated the racism toward blacks from colonial times through the turmoil after Brown v. Board of Education.

Mr. Bell took me to my first forensic competition. I reenacted the scene that told the story of Elizabeth Eckford from the Little Rock Nine. I won first place with my re-enactment of this historical event. As I walked back to my seat holding my first-place trophy, Mr. Bell simply said, “Congratulations, I always knew you could do it, kiddo.”

Mr. Bell believed in me and demonstrated how building a relationship with a student can change the trajectory of that students’ life. I went on to earn over 300 trophies from that day in 8th grade until I graduated from college. I placed third in the nation as a sophomore and first in the nation as an alumnus performing this same script. Today, I still present this re-enactment throughout the nation.

The lesson I learned that still influences my teaching today is forming relationships with students and connecting them to activities in the school can save their lives. This lesson has been the focus of my educational career for the past 30 years I always remember how Mr. Bell made me feel and that he believed in my ability until I had this belief in myself. I, in turn, have used the same philosophy since I started my teaching journey in 1987. As a forensic and special education teacher, my students gave me the nickname “Mama J” because of the powerful teacher-student relationships formed.

On Mr. Bell’s last day of teaching in 2004, I called from my office as I served as a middle school principal to thank him again for how he changed my life and how I give back to students just like he had given to me. In 2010, I dedicated my dissertation topic of building relationships and school connectedness to Mr. Bell due to the significant impact he had made in my life and teaching journey.

Response From Pernille Ripp

Since Pernille Ripp was a child growing up in Denmark, she knew she wanted to work with kids. She began her journey in education as a math resource teacher, then transitioned into the classroom as a 4th and 5th grade teacher, and has now found her home as a 7th grade English teacher in Oregon, Wis. She is also the founder of The Global Read Aloud that has connected more than 2 million students in 60 countries. Her newest book is Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child:

Becoming a teacher, I always searched for the best professional development. That best idea to take me to a new level of teaching. That next book that would finally make me feel like I knew what I was doing. The class, the conference, the meeting, the thing that would make me feel like the work I was doing was more meaningful, more engaging, and even better for the students. While all of the resources I sought out helped me, none of them were enough. None of them provided me with the type of growth that I longed for in my quest to become something more than I was. And so I searched, and I read, and I devoted countless hours to find the magic bullet that would transform my teaching from average to something better.

It turns out that while my search was meaningful, it was also not enough. It simply didn’t matter how many books I read or how many discussions I had with colleagues, nothing would ever replace the best teacher I ever had; my own students. They were, and are, the most transformative force in my growth and yet where was that discussed in all of our teacher preparation classes? Get to know them, yes, coach them, yes, adapt your lessons to work for the kids you teach, yes. But to really center my growth around the truths they would share? No one ever told me to do that because no one ever told me to ask them.

Yet, looking past at the last many years, I can tell you when I became a better teacher. It was the day I put my pride aside and asked my fourth graders; how can I be a better teacher for you? It was the day, I stopped talking and finally started listening to what these nine-year-olds had to say and then decided to heed their advice and actually implement it whenever possible. To listen to the simple things they told me, and anyone who would listen, would make school and in turn their learning more meaningful.

Give us choice, and not just in projects or who we work with. Give us a voice and use that power for us to speak to the world, and explore not just who we are, but who we want to become. Teach us things that matter more than just needing it for the test or the very next year. See us as human beings, stop shaming us into behaving, stop taking away our precious free time with homework, and, please, stop degrading us to a letter or a number. Listen to us, make us a part of this community and help us find the independence as we progress.

Year after year, I have asked the easy questions and, sometimes, the hard. I have asked my students how we should learn something, how we could change a project, who they were and what I could do to better their experiences I have asked them what has made them dislike school and lose their curiosity. And they answered, first quietly and then with a forceful will that implores us to listen, to do better by them all So when I think of who my greatest teacher is, it was never in the things I could just experience, it would always be found in the conversations waiting to happen. In the classrooms that we are in every single day, there sit the greatest teachers we will ever learn from.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards, PhD has taught at the elementary and middle school levels. She is presently serving as co-lead for the Infant and Early Childhood Development PhD program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. She has written Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively With Your Students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How Do I Get Organized and Work Smarter? (ASCD, 2014). She served as co-editor for Invitational Education and Practice in Higher Education: An International Perspective (Lexington, 2016):

My principal, Jim Fay, had the biggest influence on my teaching. He believed in me, sent me to seminars that would help me grow as a teacher, visualized success for me, and taught me many lessons.

He Believed in Me

Jim showed that he believed in me by treating me in a professional manner. When he evaluated me, he told me all of the things I was doing well. I kept wondering when he would tell me the things I was not doing as well; however, that time never came in the many years that I worked with him. I knew the areas in which I wanted to improve. I liked him so much that I was even more determined to be the best teacher I could possibly be.

He Sent Me To Seminars

Jim sent me to seminars and suggested resources that would help me to grow as a teacher. Early in my career, he asked me to represent the school at a series of seminars on cooperative learning led by David and Roger Johnson. The seminars enabled me to give demonstration lessons to other teachers in my school.

Jim sent me to a seminar on delegating non-teaching tasks to students that was taught by Wanda Lincoln. Her seminar revolutionized my teaching. I went from feeling beleaguered and doing all the work in the classroom to delegating the non-teaching tasks and feeling like a professional. One day, I was pushing chairs in. A student said, “Mrs. Edwards, why are you doing that? Kids can do that!”

Jim suggested that I read Inviting School Success by Purkey and Novak (1985). I immediately incorporated their strategies for becoming an intentionally inviting teacher. Little did I know that years later, I would be involved in their International Alliance for Invitational Education (www.invitationaleducation.net), presenting at their conferences and writing books on invitational education (Edwards, 2010; Gregory & Edwards, 2016).

He Visualized Success for Me

Jim also visualized success for me. Early in my teaching career, he started asking me to give one-hour seminars in the weekend classes that he taught for teacher recertification. He would coach me on how to present, and we would talk about my presentation afterwards. I use many of the presentation strategies I learned from him to this day.

He Taught Me Many Lessons

Finally, he taught me many lessons. In a meeting with parents that he facilitated in which the parents were extremely upset, he taught me that when parents are that upset, it is about something other than the school or the teacher. By listening underneath what the parents were saying and skillfully paraphrasing, he was able to help them understand what they were really upset about and bring a peaceful resolution to the situation.

He also taught me that it doesn’t matter whether what you tell the brain is true or false, the brain will always believe it. I have carried this lesson for years and think about it on a daily basis.

In addition, he taught me how to work effectively with children. He was in the process of developing Discipline with Love and Logic (www.loveandlogic.com). In fact, I was one of the early facilitators of the course. He taught me to give students choices, to let students own their successes (“Bet you feel good about that” rather than “I’m so proud of you”), and to help students to attribute their success to their hard work (“Tell me why you were successful. Bet you worked hard!”).

Principals have incredible power to build teachers. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jim Fay!


Edwards, J. (2010). Inviting students to learn: 100 tips for talking effectively with your students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fay, J. (2017). Love and logic. Available at //www.loveandlogic.com/

Gregory, S. T., & Edwards, J. (Eds.). (2016). Invitational education and practice in higher education: An international perspective. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Purkey, W. W., & Novak, J. M. (1984). Inviting school success: A self-concept approach to teaching and learning. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Thanks to RIta, Cynthia, Pernille, and Jenny for their contributions!

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