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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

Response: Teachers Recognize Those Who ‘Dive Into the Fray’ With Us

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 03, 2018 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

In Part One, Rita Platt, Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Pernille Ripp, and Jenny Edwards shared 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.

In Part Two, Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Dr. Manuel Rustin, Brett Novick, Toby Karten, and Dr. Barbara Blackburn contributed their answers.

Today, Sarah Cooper, Meghan Everette, Amber Teamann, Bill Ivey, and Heather Wolpert-Gawron wrap-up the series. I also include responses from readers.

Response From Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and is dean of studies at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine: Meaningful Connections for Grades 5-9 (Stenhouse, 2009) and Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom, Grades 6-9 (Routledge, 2017):

The person I always return to is my mother, Jane Schaffer. She taught high school English and was a teacher of teachers. I’ve written before about the help she gave me during my first years in the classroom. My mom reminded me that students need to be doing something rather than just listening, asked if I had read the latest cover article in English Journal, clocked lesson plan drafts in five- and ten-minute increments.

Now, seven years after she passed away at age 64 from a brain tumor, I still require my students to take notes more than they would like, still try to keep up with professional literature, still make sure to break any class period into multiple activities.

Since my mother’s death, though, I’ve realized that the less-structured lessons she conveyed - her silent curriculum for me - have transformed my teaching just as much as the detailed feedback she offered early on.

Sometimes I’m too inclined - especially when teaching history, with its bevy of facts, rather than English, with its literary wiggle room - to move lightspeed from one moment to another, to make sure that we cram in as much learning as possible.

My mom had that inclination too. She adored a Richard Wilbur poem, “Year’s End,” that urges us to take “More time, more time” to consider why we are doing what we do - loved it precisely because she didn’t always take more time, just as I don’t always.

But I know my mother did take the time to really be with her students every day. To listen. To tune into body language to figure out what she should be listening to that she couldn’t yet hear. To make her classroom a place where a student’s “shut up” wasn’t going to fly.

My classroom is, I hope, that kind of place. But I can always do more to say “How are you?” and really mean it. I can change it to “How are you today?” if I know a student has endured a difficult week or month. As the first moments of class slip by, I can let the catching up happen without feeling we need to focus on facts the moment the bell rings.

My mom always said that “we teach who we are.” My best hope for my teaching is that, remembering her hidden curriculum, I want who I am to be connected with who the students are, at every level, in the short time we have together.

Response From Meghan Everette

Meghan Everette is a teacher on special assignment in the Salt Lake City School District and a regularly blogger for Scholastic’s Top Teaching site:

I started teaching in a turn-around school on an emergency certificate. I student taught in my own classroom during my first year of teaching, with a nine-month old at home and twelve hours of classes. During my first week of school, the first week I had ever experienced outside my own life as a student, a mentor teacher was assigned to me. While this sounds much like any other mentor-mentee system, it was far from it. There were not formalized mentors for teachers outside of teacher preparation program work, and because of my unique situation, my principal was my “coordinating teacher” for that. This mentor was given to me because she was a veteran teacher with a great rapport with others. She understood and was invested in the culture of the school and highly focused on the data targets so central to turn-around.

The first day of school, she took up supplies, made and organized files, and generally did the tasks behind the scenes that a new teacher would stay late doing, or not know to do at all. The second day, she laid into a student for leaning his chin on his hands. I was unaware at the time, but there was an extremely high premium on student engagement in this school coupled with the fact this student was a known trouble-maker. The first three weeks she was with me every day and I didn’t even notice her gradual release until one day I was on my own. As we went through the year, she guided me in other ways. I modeled much of my teaching after what I saw her do in her classroom, my classroom, and as we eventually developed an easy co-teaching flow. Over the next few years, she would draw me into teacher leadership, guiding me to be forwarding thinking about tasks and anticipate what was needed in my classroom and school. My mentor, my friend, was the most powerful influence over my teaching throughout those early years.

A few years ago, a second influencer became vital to my survival and success in teaching; my PLN. Beginning with ASCD Emerging Leaders and a group of highly dedicated and seriously fun colleagues and going through the last two years with the most dedicated and wonderful teachers in the Hope Street Group Teacher Fellowship, I have been inspired, driven, and guided by my network. It doesn’t always happen; I’ve certainly been to conferences and meetings where I walk away with knowledge and nothing more, but in these two specific instances, I have found my tribe. These are my people. These are the teachers that give me new ideas to try out, my true friends that show me when my actions go astray, and who lead me to learn more about education and myself through their perspectives and connections. In moving across country, I found a safety net of experience and intelligence. In tackling a new job and new issues, I found support and guidance. These are the people who influence me day to day through their example and passions.

For me influencers are personal. While there are great education professionals turned authors and speakers, their influence is superfluous. It’s the people, like my mentor and friends, who are willing to dive into the fray with me that continuously impact who I am and who I want to be.

Response From Amber Teamann

Amber Teamann is the proud principal of Whitt Elementary in Wylie ISD in Wylie, Texas. During her educational career, Amber’s comprehensive understanding of student learning has resulted in a successful blend of technology and teaching to students and adults. From a 4th grade teacher at a public school technology center, to her role as a Title I Technology Facilitator responsible for 17 campuses to principal, Amber has helped students and staff navigate their digital abilities and responsibilities:

Very “clichely,” I’ve always known that I wanted to be a teacher. Coming from a low income neighborhood, and a one income family, I also knew that the only way to make that happen was to go to college. Very early, in 5th and 6th grades I began writing down the things I loved about the different classroom teachers that I had the benefit of having as a student. I don’t remember any of them faulting my questions or my passions for want I wanted to do, or doubting that it would ever happen.

I think back to the struggles that I know they had to be aware of within my family, and not one of them were anything other than encouraging. There were days when we walked to school because the car broke down, or I brought change that we scrounged up for my lunch that day. I’ll never forget wearing a “Gilley’s” shirt to school, and having my 4th grade teacher politely suggest that I not wear that anymore. (Gilley’s was a big bar in downtown Dallas! Eek!)

Thankfully, it was my teachers again in high school who ensured I knew what it took to get into college. As a relatively good student, I still had no experience or exposure on the actual HOW to get into college. It was my teachers who made sure I knew how to apply for financial aid, what it looked like to register for classes, or create schedule for myself. My parents weren’t un-involved or indifferent, just uninformed. They didn’t know what it looked like anymore than I did to move past high school.

As the first college graduate in my family, who later went on to get her masters, and is now an administrator, I am SO incredibly thankful for those educators who helped me along, despite that not being on their syllabus, or in their standards. They didn’t judge my family’s income level, or question if college was “right” for me, but supported my long term goals. It was their support and encouragement that insured I didn’t veer off track or miss my opportunity to continue my education.

Response From Bill Ivey

Bill Ivey is middle school dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham, a feminist girls school:

I could list any number of people who’ve deeply influenced my teaching - my 5th grade ELA teacher Miss Dmytryk (who gave me confidence as a thoughtful writer), my 9th grade French teacher Mr. Luippold (who inspired me to go into French teaching), my grad school advisor Jean-Pierre Berwald (who introduced me to pedagogical ideas that still serve me and set me on the path to lifelong learning), my friend Mark Springer (who introduced to Democratic Classroom practices), John Lounsbury (gentle and visionary godfather of the middle school movement), my parents (both college professors) and my wife (Academic Dean in an independent girls school). But if I look at the cumulative effect on my teaching over time, my answer has to be: my students.

They are the ones who, verbally and non-verbally, consciously and unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly, give me continuous feedback all along the way, from the moment I first see them to the end of the day, from the first day of class to the last activity of the year. They let me know in facial expressions and postures and tones of voice, in spoken comments they offer and for which I ask, in written evaluations, how well what I am doing is working for them. They help me shape what I do both moment to moment within my classroom, over time for a given group of students, and over the extreme long term for trends in my teaching. My core values may come from all the above people I listed, but my students help me bring them to life in that ways that most benefit them. And me.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher. She is a staff blogger for Edutopia and also blogs at tweenteacher.com She is the author of such books as: Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin, 2017), DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge, 2015), and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge, 2016):

While I have had many great teachers in my life, I think I am the teacher I am today because of specific teachers I have worked with throughout my career. Teachers like Suky Werman, who was my first partner-in-crime. She mentored me in arts integration across the curriculum. Teachers like the late Addie Holsing, who began developing concrete methods of implementing the use of multiple intelligences before Gardner himself had moved beyond theory. Teachers like Elaine Keysor, who became my one-woman PLN as we bounced ideas off each other, pushed back on each other, and supported innovations on the fly. Teachers like Liz Harrington, who, to this day, continues to push my practice and who first recommended I apply for the Writing Project where I soon met a whole room of inspirational teachers. These amazingly influential teachers are in every school and are there to learn from no matter where one is on their professional timeline.

However, if we’re talking about who was my initial teacher, the one who was first to instill in me a sense of storytelling, the need to debate, and the importance of strong voice and character, that would have to be Dad. Our parents are our first teachers, right? They are the ones that help give you a foundation of character going into school. They are also the ones who, if you’re lucky, recognize that you are a Work in Progress even if school and grades make you feel so summative. Dad made me excited about history, made me proud of my writing, and also aided and abetted my math-phobia (you said “influence” but didn’t specify that it had to be positive!) Regardless, Dad has had an influence on me both as a person and as a teacher. I want my students to feel as excited to learn new things as I did growing up.

Responses From Readers

Susan Hildebrand:

Arthur Hyde and Chris Confer have had the biggest influence on my teaching. Hyde shares how to incorporate reading strategies to teach mathematics in “Comprehending Math.” Wow, my struggling 2nd graders had learned to use the strategies during reading so why not adapt them to math! Students began to “notice-wonder,” “ask questions,” and “visualize” the story problems. Chris Confer in her books, “Teaching Number Sense K and 1st,” uses real-world project based activities to weave the importance of a deep foundation in number sense. Students become powerful mathematicians! Both Hyde and Confer have written many other books including “Best Practices; Comprehending Problem Solving"-Hyde; and “Math by All Means; Small Steps, Big Changes"-Confer and given much needed professional development.

Arthur and Chris are such real and wonderful people! They each have answered my questions, given me guidance and suggestions to help me serve my students!

Thanks to Sarah, Meghan, Amber, Bill, and Heather, and to readers, 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.

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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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