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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: ‘Teaching Is Not a Job, But a Way of Life’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 09, 2018 14 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a teacher? Why or why not?

In Part One, Shaeley Santiago, Anne Jenks, Sarah Thomas, Dr. Margarita Bianco and Stephen Lazar shared their answers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with PJ, Stephanie and Megan 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, Debbie Silver, Julia G. Thompson, Jenny Edwards, Roberta Israeloff, George McDermott, and Kara Vandas contributed their responses.

Today, Amber Chandler, Daniel R. Venables, Wendi Pillars and comments from many readers are finishing up the series.

Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified Middle school teacher, adjunct professor, and author of The Flexible ELA Classroom. Follow her on Twitter @MsAmberChandler:

For as long as I remember, I have been a teacher. From teaching my stuffed animals in my Strawberry Shortcake themed bedroom, to art lessons for my younger brother (that consisted mainly of bossing him around), I’ve always felt the pull towards this profession. I’ve always wanted to help other people do their best, and the greatest moments of my career have come when I’ve watched someone do something that seemed impossible until the very moment of achievement. Helping Tyler get into college, when she was completely living on her own at seventeen years old. Getting Richard help with his undiagnosed dyslexia, resulting in his reading for the first time in 8th grade. Facilitating an internship for a talented young political cartoonist. These are the reasons I teach.

However, it isn’t just the lessons or help I give my students that compels me to teach, but what I learn from them as well. I’ve written about these lessons often, but it is only because there have been so many. This year, I’m learning that peer pressure is still alive and well, as vaping has taken the place of smoking, and kiddos are still fearless and unimpressed with long-term consequences. I’m learning that when adults say “too much screen time, you’re being anti-social” students are thinking “this is my socializing,” and adults aren’t in agreement on this one at all. I’m learning that when a middle school boy is afraid to leave the safety of the middle school, he’ll do anything he can to make those who care about him pull away from him to make the separation easier for him, even if it breaks my heart.

It is, without a doubt, a rollercoaster ride. One day I’ll feel like I’m changing the world, and the next I’ll feel like my influence was stronger on stuffed animals. But, that’s just it, right? To teach is to experience the extremes of emotion that make us human, to fly invincibly high with our students, but to also know pains that are not our own. Teaching is not a job, but a way of life, a lens by which I see the world, and I can’t imagine a life that did not include the ups and downs of changing and being changed by other people. I feel like I’d be missing something really special in my life if I weren’t privy to the emotional rawness that comes with growing up. Watching an encore at a play, a goal scored in the last minute, or a 100% on a test is so invigorating, and living it all vicariously is exhilarating. The down, of course, is that feeling of the earth rushing up to meet you as the highest peaks must end, and a flubbed line, the missed shot, or the failed test is inevitable. Year after year, I know that I’m lucky enough to be in the companion seat, hands up one minute, gripping tightly the next, and I can’t think of a better job in the world.

Response From Daniel R. Venables

Daniel R. Venables is the Founding Director of the Grapple™ Institutes where he teaches schools how to do PLCs well. His latest book is Facilitating Teacher Teams and Authentic PLCs: The Human Side of Leading People, Protocols, and Practices (ASCD, 2018). He can be reached at dvenables@authenticplcs.com:

I gravitated to this question because the answer is so clear to me. In fact, I tinkered with calling this post “Hell, Yeah!.”

I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in the second grade. Like many six-year-olds (I started school at four which was common practice back then for October birthdays) I would play school in the basement of our home using a solid, slate blackboard my grandmother gave me. It was 2' by 3' with a nominal wood frame and I remember it was very heavy. There I would stand for hours “teaching” imaginary students how to compute areas of irregular figures I had conjured up by dividing them into squares and rectangles and triangles. As I grew older, I continued playing school with the same chalkboard and added to my arsenal quizzes I had created, filled out as a student might, and corrected with my red pen. That basement was my classroom and it launched a career in education that has now lasted 37 years.

For 24 of those years, I taught high school mathematics - everything from Shop Math to AP Calculus - in public and independent schools in CT, NC, and SC. At an independent school in SC, I managed to be dubbed “favorite teacher” in the student yearbook all but two of the 18 years I taught there. The kids dedicated the 1992 yearbook to me and, ten years later, I received the “South Carolina Independent School Teacher of the Year” award. I mention these things not to brag, but give the reader a sense that I was at the top of my game in the classroom. So, it is an easy and resounding YES with which I can answer the question “Would I do it again?.”

People often ask me if there was a particularly inspiring math teacher I had after whom I model my own style. My answer is always the same: “No. I never had a good math teacher until college and I was hell-bent on becoming for my own students the one I never had.” [If any of my former math teachers is reading this, well, good.] One of the greatest compliments a student once gave me was that I “destroyed the math teacher stereotype”. That was in 1984 and I remember it clearly and have called upon that memory for strength when doing lessons my own (often very unorthodox) ways and being true to who I was and effective with kids. Thanks, Vimal (his real name).

It is not an exaggeration to say I have a chest of cards, letters, thank-you notes, essays and rap songs written about me, offered by former students and a few parents. I have saved them all - nearly four decades worth. And just last week, my three year old son roamed into my home office and, looking at the four stately bookcases that line my office walls, he reached for a bright green book and asked me to read it to him. It was “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. I stopped working, got on the floor, and read him the book. It was given to me by a student named Jenny at the end of a school year and, for the second time (separated by nearly 20 years since the first time), Jenny at once brought a tear and a smile to my face as I read what she wrote in the inside cover.

“Hell yes,” I would do it all over again.

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars, NBCT, worked in a PSYOP unit and with the PATRIOT Missile system in the US Army. She has been working with language learners, K-12, stateside and overseas for 20+ years, and is the author of Visual Notetaking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity. An introvert by nature, this is the most she has ever written publicly about her military experience. Find her on Twitter @wendi322:

My first full-time job was in the military, and one of the questions that seared into my brain during training was “Are you ready to lead missions where your people may die?” I was 17 years old. My mind recoiled, but the reality hooked its claws into my psyche with full force as I understood my new responsibilities. It shifted my training, my outlook, my entire view on life. My competitive self wanted nothing but perfection and success for my platoons, and considered everyday problems at home trivial compared to our greater vision. That kind of intensity defies description and never leaves you, and I often wish I had never left the military.

But I did, and became an educator. If I had to choose whether to teach again or not, it’s a gut-wrenching call. Teaching fits my military and humanitarian impulses to a degree, albeit not perfectly. I know I am destined to live a life of service, I crave intellectual stimulation and need both physical and creative outlets. Teaching provides that for me.

I’ve been teaching now for 22 years, and the opportunities I’ve experienced because of it have at times blown my expectations away with incessant learning, incredible colleagues, and students who become some of the most fabulous people on the planet against seemingly insurmountable odds.

If I chose to do it all over again, I would have to advise myself a bit, and that wisdom to my teacher self would stem directly from these eight lessons learned in the military:

  1. Know your mission. The military is driven by mission, but personal mission drives our everyday efforts. Make sure yours is clear.

  2. Favor diplomacy. Keep emotions in check by listening and observing more. Giving in to extreme emotions will not solve problems in a sustainable way, nor will greater firepower.

  3. Savor the art of choosing when to join forces, when to surrender and when to stand alone. The military strives toward the surrender of individuality, but teaching? The best teaching encourages, nurtures, and grows it in spades.

  4. Find your tribe. There will always be individual experiences of war in which family, friend, and tribe are what you fight for, rather than some Grand Cause. The bonds created in those experiences are life-saving, forged in the heat of the proverbial fire. Teaching isn’t always as intense, but without those reasons to fight and that nucleus of supporters, you’re toast.

  5. Bring the very best version of yourself to everything you do and savor a clean conscience, even in the face of failure. Then reflect.

  6. Be ok knowing that there will always be more you can do. Simply put, you can never do enough in the teaching profession. Teach your Type A personality to cut your to-do list in half. Twice.

  7. Know that you will not be able to save every student. At least try.

  8. Power and authority mean more responsibility. The higher you go, the more is at stake because your actions affect far more people, so check your motives.

Thanks to far-reaching impacts of technology, I have many wonderful colleagues around the world. More than ever I believe that it’s harder to start a war with a friend in every country, which is all the more reason to broaden our vision of education and optimize our connections. The question I’d rather be asked now is “Are you ready to lead missions where your students will learn about the world and how to make it better?”

My answer to that is a resounding “affirmative.”

Responses From Readers

James Pike:

I have no idea. I would like to make more money, but i feel i was born to teach.

Sharon Duffy Eilts:

Yes. Being a teacher is part of who I am, not related to what I do, if that makes sense.

Luiz Otávio Barros

Yes, absolutely. Teaching has helped to shape the person I’ve become, determined what kind of people I’d meet along the way and stay in touch with through the years... I could go on and on.

Thanks to Amber, Daniel, and Wendi, 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.

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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