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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: Learning From Difficult Teaching Moments

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 03, 2017 19 min read
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(This is the first post in a multi-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What was the most difficult moment of your teaching career and what did you learn from it?

We teachers have lots of difficult, as well as uplifting, moments. In this series, educators will be sharing their most difficult moments and what they learned from them.

Today, Lorena Germán, Tom Rademacher, Diana Laufenberg, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, and Jeff Bradbury share their stories. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Lorena and Tome on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Before I share the stories of my guests, I thought I should start with my own:

My most difficult moment was actually a series of them during my first year of teaching. A teacher at the middle school where I was student-teaching had an unexpected medical leave, and they needed a replacement to cover a self-contained class of retained seventh-graders. The credential program I was in was eager to maintain a good relationship to the school, and they worked to make the arrangement possible.

It was the classical situation of putting the very least experienced teacher in the most challenging class that the school couldn’t get anyone else to teach.

I had come to teaching after a nineteen-year career as a community organizer, but little of it really prepared me to spend seven hours each day with a group of thirteen year-old students who had all experienced and continued to be experiencing terrible trauma.

Many days during that semester were pretty terrible, but one lesson from my community organizing days saved me -- when things go south, the best thing you can do is pick yourself off the floor and try your best the next day. If you do that, eventually things will improve.

They did, and some of those students continued to call me years later to let me know how they were doing.

Response From Lorena Germán

Lorena Germán is a 12 year educator focused on culturally sustaining educational practices. She is a Dominican-American living in Austin. You can follow her at @nenagerman on Twitter:

The most difficult moment in teaching happened a few years ago when I found myself on the wrong side of the line. Allow me to preface by saying that I don’t believe in the way that standardized assessments have overtaken urban public school education. While I was confident in the work I was accomplishing with students within the four walls of my classroom, the testing had seeped in and taken over. I felt overwhelmed by the pressure to ensure that my students would have high scores, that I would be perceived as competent, and that the school’s scores would keep us afloat. I forgot to mention that I was teaching all newcomer immigrants who had no English language experience or education, and those that did have some grasp of English, had not achieved enough CALPS to do well on a standardized test of this complexity.

There is a line. That line separates the problem and the solution. Too often I found myself hopping back and forth on that line. During one of the testing days I was proctoring, a brand new student (to the country, and school) was sent to my room. He sat down in a chair and looked at me wide-eyed hoping I could explain what was going on. In that moment, I was on the wrong side of the line. On another day, a student completely missed understanding the entire point of the reading passage due to nuances and irony. I couldn’t answer his question or clarify those writing techniques in order to help him so that he could graduate. In that moment, I was on the wrong side of the line. And like those, I have many stories.

I wondered how some of my 10 or 20 year veteran coworkers did it. How did they endure the dysfunction, the trends, the incompetence, the racism, the systemic inequalities, and how did they keep from falling on the wrong side of the line? How did they not scream, throw a chair, pull their hair out, develop an ulcer?

That year, we reached the last day of school and as I walked out with my box into the parking lot, a co-worker shared with me that we had run out of days in the school year and hadn’t finished some of the standardized assessments. He was frustrated, exhausted, and in disbelief. That moment was a confirmation for me: things are wrong and I needed to figure out where I stand. I left that school. I’m a public school teacher in exile. I couldn’t hop back and forth on that line. I learned that year that I understand how every teacher has their own journey and I shouldn’t judge where others were. I’ve learned what teaching is supposed to be and what school is not supposed to do. I’ve learned that I am strong enough to endure and that immigrant and urban students deserve better, and more, and equity. I learned to focus on what I was willing to do and not willing to do. I learned to be clear about where the line is for me and make sure to stay on the right side.

Response From Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher teaches in Minneapolis. His work in the classroom is focused on understanding and resisting systemic racism in schools. In May of 2014, he was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year. His book, It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (And Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter To Teaching, will be available in April of 2017 from University of Minnesota Press. He can be found on twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com:

This is an excerpt from his upcoming book (look for an interview with Tom about the book later this year):

In my third year of teaching, just before the students came back from lunch, my whole teaching team was called to the office. Our principal delivered the news that one of our students, an eighth grade girl of profound talent and empathy, was about to be told that her mother just committed suicide. The girl’s father was on the way, but we were to act as if everything was normal until he got there.

The girl was in my next class, and that hour was without a doubt the hardest I have ever had as a teacher. All these years later, I can picture where the girl was sitting, the spot behind the lab table I stood in for most of the hour. I have this weird thing where I don’t connect colors to emotion, so I never remember them. I can’t tell you the color of any house I’ve lived in, including the one I’m currently sitting in. I can’t tell you the color of my classroom, or of any classroom I’ve ever taught in, or the color of the dress I put my daughter in this morning, or the color of a single flower, food item or decoration at my wedding, but I remember vividly that the student was in yellow for the last hour of her life before she found out her mom was dead.

During the hour, I tried not to look at her too much, tried to act as normal as I could, tried not to break down, to run to her, to hug her and tell her a thousand times, “I’m sorry.” I felt awful for knowing what I had no right to know, and felt guilty for being able to teach, to joke with students, with that student in particular, knowing what I knew.

As the hour ended, she was called to the office. After twenty minutes, her three closest friends were called up as well. News spread over the next few days and the community rallied and supported her in ways impressive and beautiful. The girl’s teachers became among the most important people in her life, but not as teachers. We were people, humans, who cared for her as a person. What she needed, the only thing she needed, for the last few months of school, was as much humanity and care and support as we could give her, and so we did, because more than teacher and students, she was a human and we were all humans.

Teaching is completely full of humans.

Really, full of them. Real humans. Oh, and how often we forget. Oh, and how much did any training, education, staff development, or research about teaching get me ready for my most trying moments, for that or any other of the many times I’ve felt the most effective and important and influential at my job? Not at all. Because Teaching is only sometimes about teaching. Teachers are far too often complaining about not getting to do their jobs because they don’t get enough time just saying things for kids to write down. Teaching is so rarely that, is so much often doing all the work to get a student to that moment, is so often supporting a kid who is far away from being taught that day.

I have learned, at least in the short time I’ve been doing this, that anyone promising answers to teaching is almost surely full of shit. I have my answers, and I’m sure I’ll end up sharing everything I think I’ve learned, but my answers work for me, in the building I work, and with the students I have. If there were one method of instruction, assessment, or classroom management that worked well for everyone, then teaching would be ridiculously easy, and we’d all be a lot better at it.

Anyone who’s done it for longer than a day knows that teaching is messy business. Each school is different, and each classroom for that matter, and each group of students, and each kid is different, and every kid is different on different days, or by different friends, or doing different sorts of things. Messy, messy, messy.

I’ve found that applying a system broadly, any system, no matter how well engineered or well intentioned or well researched, means you miss kids and means kids miss opportunities. This is the problem with most books, manuals, and teacher education classes. They skip to the final step, and don’t spend nearly long enough on the core reasons why we do what we do. So often while I got my license I heard professors say, “we’re all here for the right reasons.” So often in staff meetings now do I hear, “we all want the same thing for students,” and then we jump to how we get to that thing.

We don’t talk about the reasons. We don’t spend time on the questions that created the answers in the first place.

Never once was there a strategy introduced for what to do when a student finds out in the middle of your class that their mother has died tragically. Any strategy presented anywhere would be wrong anyway. Besides, it was an intense day, the hardest day I’ve ever had as a teacher, but is one of only about a hundred different times I’ve had a student in crisis in front of me. Sometimes they wear those crises like fire, they scream and they spread and they destroy. Sometimes they wear those crises like Frodo wore the ring, secretly, around their necks, weighing them down. Is it inappropriate to make a Lord of the Rings reference regarding students in crisis? It is.

There is no right way to treat those kids, no strategy that makes their parents death not hurt, that makes their home suddenly safe, that makes their addiction disappear. We can be kind, we can care.

You may have one group figured out in May, but you’ll get a new group in September, and you’ll learn, because we all learn, that what worked last year won’t work this year. Each year’s class is a whole new group of humans complete with all the mess of humans. Their lives are not static, so we can’t be static. We can ask the same questions every year, the questions that have given us success, the questions that have helped us help kids, but we can’t expect the same answers, can’t assume the answers will be the same without asking. Teaching is hard, and one of the hardest things about it is that it never gets easy.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught 7-12 grade students Social Studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Most recently, Diana Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new non-profit working to create and support student centered learning environments that are inquiry driven, project based and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools:

Knowing when to leave a school have been the most difficult moments. I spent my career in three different buildings. I know no other way than to completely jump head first into all aspects of school organization when I join a faculty. In my first job I was drafting the school calendar in my second year. In Flagstaff, after we lost funding for a Technology person, I took on managing the labs complete with interfacing with the district IT staff to keep it in good running order, procurement and a growth plan. At SLA, I helped out with master scheduling, calendaring, professional development, etc. I’m nearly incapable of turning my full focus inward to the classroom (and no, I do not that that is necessarily a positive quality, nor did my respective principals all the time).

When I left each of these schools, there were reasons... some were personal, some were professional. Leaving the students was extraordinarily difficult. Extricating myself from the extra responsibilities was a challenge. I stayed too long in one of my schools and that last year was particularly challenging as the principal no longer appreciated me being on his staff. I stayed because I had made promises to kids, I stayed because I wasn’t ready to go, I stayed because I thought it would get better, I stayed because I thought I could fix it. It was in that moment that it dawned on me that this was how teachers became angry and bitter, when they turn from effective to spiteful and I could feel it happening.

My life circumstances leave me in a flexible place to move easily. A trusted mentor sat across a desk from me and said, “Diana, they are never going to let you be the teacher or leader you want to be. It’s time to go”. While I’ve never been one to seek permission, that conversation stuck in my brain as a pivotal moment. The changes I wanted for that school were not going to happen because the district had different ideas for leadership. The changes I wanted to see would not happen if I were there because it had gotten personally toxic between the principal and I. If I wanted to stay positive, effective and healthy, I needed to leave. So leave, I did. But it wasn’t easy. It nearly broke me to walk away from that place that I loved living. It nearly broke me to walk away from a community that had adopted me for nearly a decade. It nearly broke me.

In all my decisions to join or leave a faculty, I have been fortunate. The people I’ve had the distinct honor to work alongside of is beyond impressive. The communities welcomed me with all my midwestern quirks and commentary. But it is important to always evaluate if it is time to go. Taking that risk into new and unknown, refreshing your career with new experiences, stretching to teach different classes in different places... I’ve never regretted it. But those moments stand as some of the most difficult in my career.

Response From Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher, 2011 Folsom Cordova Unified School District Teacher of the Year, and Area3 Writing Project Teacher Consultant. Sarah currently teaches fifth grade in Rancho Cordova and serves as Vice President on the Washington Unified School Board in West Sacramento, where she lives with her husband and two young children -- a kindergartner and preschooler:

There are more difficult challenges in teaching than I ever anticipated as a new teacher. Sometimes you are forced to confront distresses outside the classroom caused by the career you chose -- such as the toll it can take on your family. I remember my husband saying to me when we were first married, “I feel like you put your students before me.” I looked at him, and said, “Of course I do. You are a grown man and I have some struggling 10-year-olds who need me.” I now understand how much those words stung and have worked hard to put my family’s needs in proper balance with grading, parent emails, and planning. That can be difficult, because this is a profession where there is always more that needs to be done, and you sometimes feel guilty letting things go.

Personal interaction with parents can provide rich, satisfying experiences in any teacher’s day. Our students’ parents are our partners in teaching, and most of the time we both get it right. Parents are vital to the success of our mutual goals. Ironically, however, it’s a small fraction of those parents who have caused the most difficulty in my teaching career. I never would have anticipated how difficult some of my students’ family situations can be. Yet, when parents come to school drunk, after they find out a CPS call was made, or to yell at you about a grade their child earned, that whole partner thing is severely tested.

When I was pregnant with our second daughter, I experienced one of my toughest parent confrontations ever. She did not attend parent conferences and ignored notes and calls home, but would spend hours and hours over email questioning me and attacking my every comment. It was exhausting, and I was incredibly worried about the stress it was causing my pregnancy. I am thankful to my union, principal, and district. I went to my union president and he spoke to the district administration about the verbal abuse teachers so often face. District administrators wrote a policy, adopted by our board, intended to protect teachers and staff from verbal abuse from parents. My principal then informed this parent that I would only be communicating through a daily, written behavior log and all emails and other communication were to go through him. This took a huge weight off my shoulders and I appreciated having the support.

Sometimes parent-teacher relationships can become strained when parents do not have a clear understanding of what is happening in the classroom. While sitting in a workshop at the National Board Conference in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago, I was inspired by presenters who explained their practice of giving families a “snapshot” into our rooms using the latest technology. Pictures can show parents what we do all day with their children -- the conversations, the laughs, the challenging moments, the smiles. Finding ways to bring families into the classroom and show them all the good stuff happening, beyond the written newsletters we send home, can be an important tool in forging the supportive bond that can be so powerful in helping students succeed. This is a work in progress for me, as social media evolves. This year I will be using the Shutterfly classroom app to share pictures with families.

When you get to that tough time in teaching, where you feel like you are sinking, ask for help -- from your colleagues, from your principal, from the experts at the conferences. They’ve got your back.

Response From Jeff Bradbury

Jeff Bradbury is the Technology Integration Coordinator for the Westwood Regional School District in Westwood, NJ. He is a member of the 2015 class of ASCD Emerging Leaders. Jeff runs the popular website TeacherCast, a site providing blogs, audio, and video podcasts dedicated to improving EdTech by building a bridge between developers and educators. Follow Jeff on Twitter at @TeacherCast:

Think back to the decisions you made early on in your life. The decisions that started with, “In the future, I want to be a _____ when I grow up.” We all have said something like that. Those proclamations led us to applying for college, working through years of training, going to our student teaching assignments and ultimately, applying for our first job.

For the last 15 years, I have been a proud music educator. I have set up stages and pits. I have marched on fields in the rain and I have arranged music stands on fields to perform for county fairs. It was by far the best time of my professional career and recently I made the very difficult decision to walk away from it all.

The decision was probably the most difficult one of my career, but also, I strongly consider it the easiest one that I have ever made. It was difficult because I felt at the time like I was turning my back on my students, my program, and my colleagues. Fifteen years in Music Education building up a network of contacts both in and outside of the district would suddenly go away. I just finished my eighth year in this particular district and it was the first district that awarded me tenure. I was set for life and I had something good.

But, it was time for a change.

The reality of the situation is that it wasn’t the fact that I was walking away from my career, my students, my program, and ultimately the podium. It was the fact that I was walking towards my future. I was walking into a new career path as a Technology Coach. I was walking towards a future where I would be at home more with my family. It was a decision that ultimately will be shaping my future.

When you have a decision to make, especially a difficult one that is career changing, you have two decisions. You can say it’s the end of something and dwell on it, or you can say it’s the beginning of something and celebrate it. Sometimes these decisions are difficult to make, and sometimes these decisions are made for you. Either way, I encourage everyone to constantly keep their heads up, their eyes looking ahead and their hearts open to new possibilities.

Thanks to Lorena, Tom, Diana, Sarah and Jeff for their contributions!

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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

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Implementing The Common Core

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Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

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Look for Part Two in a few days...


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