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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: The Best Teaching Advice Is...

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 27, 2017 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is a one-to-three sentence passage have you read—in a book, online, magazine, etc.—OR something that you were told or heard that has had a major impact on your teaching?

All of us who are educators have read and heard a lot of teaching advice over the years. Some of it is helpful and some of it goes in one ear and out the other. A small portion, however, can stick with us forever. In this series, we’ll be exploring what those “stick with us forever” drops of wisdom have been...

Today, Rita Platt, Fred Ende, Arpine Ovsepyan, Rachael George and Cindi Rigsbee contribute their thoughts. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Fred, Arpine and Rachael on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I’m going to share two pieces of advice that have stayed with me and, I believe, have made me a better teacher and a better person.

The first comes from Marvin Marshall, one of my favorite writers on positive methods of classroom management.

He wrote:

Will what I am about to do or say bring me closer or will it push me away farther from the person with whom I am communicating?

I try to keep that line in mind whenever it’s time to have a difficult conversation with a student, and I know that the results of those discussions have been immeasurably better than they would have been otherwise. It doesn’t mean I have fewer of those kinds of conversations, or that I let more things “go” (though I do always try to keep in mind the phrase “choose your battles”). It does mean my manner is more authoritative and not authoritarian.

It’s similar to the old community organizing adage I often used during my nineteen year community organizing career -- after you polarize, always depolarize.

The second piece of wisdom is one I heard long before I became a teacher, but has nevertheless informed how I teach - and how I live.

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to meet a man who had worked with Mahatma Gandhi during the fight for Indian independence. He told me:

Larry, the key to Gandhi’s success was that he looked at every problem as an opportunity, not as a pain-in-the-butt.

Though I’m not sure if that is the exact wording Gandhi would have chosen :) , I was lucky enough to really hear and remember that wisdom. It’s made me a better person, community organizer and teacher.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National 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 SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

I just finished my 20th year of teaching. Last year was as filled with joy, hope, excitement, and success as the first one. Over the years, I’ve had no shortage of mentors. I believe that the best way to be a better teacher is to be open to the idea that there is more to learn. Each year, I benefit from the collective wisdom of the profession and am amazed at the talents of my fellow educators and their willingness to share. There are some lessons, however, that have stuck with me to the point of becoming mantras.

“All students want to learn and they all can learn. A teacher’s job is to lend students their expertise and then get out of their way.” ~John Wolfe

John, my husband, and fellow edu-geek, repeats a version of this in every conversation he has with students, teachers, and school leaders. The simple concept helps me keep students at the forefront of my planning and decision-making. It reminds me that helping students work hard and learn is not something teachers do to them, it is a gift we give them and one that students dearly want.

“You have to run your class! Kids can’t learn in chaos.” ~Keithann Trevithick

Keithann, was in her 31st year of teaching when I met her. I was in my second. I quickly realized that she was a true master and spent as much time with her as I could. Keithann was an amazing classroom manager. Her combined first and second grade classroom hummed with happy, productive learners in a troubled school where that was not the norm. She helped me realize that having strong procedures, routines, and expectations that are firmly and fairly applied is essential to student success. In my many and varied roles since, I have found that to be unequivocally true. No matter how amazing the lesson, how brilliant the teacher, or how wonderful the children, without strong management, learning is less likely to happen.

“Parents send us the best kids that they have. Treat them with respect, kindness, and love.” ~Irene Brenner

In my twenties, I taught at a school in “bush Alaska.” It was a tough school with the type of ills found where there is mass poverty and major clashes of culture (the students were 100 percent Yupik and the teachers were 100 percent white.) Irene, the assistant principal dealt with discipline issues that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But, she never lost heart or hope for a better future for our students. Her example of love and kindness in the face of challenge has been a touchstone that has served me again and again in my work with children. From Irene, I learned to treat all students as I’d like my own children to be treated, to not take poor behavior personally, and to start from a heart of service and love. No matter what.

“As a teacher you could work 24/7. You have to choose not to.” ~Ken Swift

In 1996, I was a student teacher in a busy first grade classroom under the mentorship of Ken Swift. I was as driven then as I am now. But, thanks to Ken, I learned that effective teachers are kind to themselves and remember that the job will never be done I learned that teachers must give themselves permission to walk away from the piles and files when they need or even want to.

The words of wisdom above have helped me to love my job and to be pretty darn good at it, too! For more, read my post, Five Things I Finally Understand About Teaching and Learning.

Response From Fred Ende

Fred Ende is the author of Professional Development that Sticks: How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators? (ASCD). Ende is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES, one of New York’s 37 regional education service agencies. Connect with Fred on Twitter @FredEnde:

During my first year of teaching, a mentor (and now colleague) of mine told me that wherever my education career takes me, I need to always remember “That it is all about the relationships.”

This stuck with me, and I’ve always made it part of my mission to be a relational learner and leader, someone who leans on others, and lets others lean on him, in order to move our profession forward. As a teacher this meant keeping the lines of communication open, and doing my best to reach out to parents with the good, as well as the bad. It also meant making it a habit to really get to know each of my students; each year I would block out “mini-interviews” during the first few weeks of class for all the students on my team. During these sessions we would chat for about five to ten minutes about likes, dislikes, hopes, and aspirations. By the end of the first month, I knew what made each of my students tick, and while I wasn’t always able to meet everyone where they were, I at least knew when I wasn’t, and why.

As a leader, this mantra means making decisions with people as the priority. I call it living by the “Rule of 3Ps.” It’s a simple idea, really. Basically, there is a thinking progression where people are more important than the process, and the process is more important than the product (People>Process>Product).

Keeping this at the front of my mind each day helps me to make sure that I’m always asking relational questions when exploring a new initiative, considering a new professional learning opportunity, or pondering a new partnership. It also keeps me centered on the feeling and emotional side of leadership. I can be incredibly analytical, and the “Rule of 3Ps” balances me in such a way that I’m always thinking about how ideas will impact those around me (and even those further afield). There are a lot of lenses we can put on as leaders; I’m happy to regularly wear that of a relational leader, and it all goes back to a piece of advice that was shared with me when I first started my career.

Response From Arpine Ovsepyan

Arpine Ovsepyan is an award-winning educator and Class of 2007 ASCD Emerging Leader. Ovsepyan is currently an English teacher at Herbert Hoover High School in Glendale, Calif., and an instructor at Glendale Community College:

“Progress, not perfection”

These are three simple words that encapsulate my teaching philosophy and have had a major impact on my teaching.

Often times, as educators, we forget and lose touch with the reality that for many students the classroom is an intimidating place where they might have been bullied or reminded that they need extra practice in a subject area.

For some students who are in our class, this might be their first time in an American school, or perhaps some students might be working hard to achieve their IEP goals in an inclusion classroom where they’re disability seems magnified. Some might be entering the classroom from a broken hearted family situation while others are harboring a secret fear of failure.

Whatever the case maybe, it is absolutely vital for educators to take a step back to remind their students that the true measure of their success in class is based on their own individual progress.

I know we all function in an educational system that has perfected creating assessments that measure student mastery of a given subject matter. But, we need to think critically about how we need to be sensitive and responsive to our students’ needs and constantly encourage and empower them to celebrate their progress. At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that must be willing to accept the fact that students are going to make mistakes and we have to develop a classroom environment that encourages them to step out of their comfort zone.

In my classroom, I often share personal examples of learning how to swim, completing another educational degree, or trying out a new form of dance where I have struggled to achieve mastery. In my explanation, I intentionally point out that every step along the way, I relied on a good coach, teacher, or parent for support. Then, I elaborate on how I had to learn to celebrate small success that contributed to reaching my goal. Throughout my narrative, I emphasize how the progress I made each step along the way helped strength my confidence and resulted into achieving my goal. With that said, I stress to my students that when I start a journey towards my goal, it is the process and progress that I make that is important—not perfection.

Response From Rachael George

Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and is currently the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary school principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School,” as recognized by the Oregon Department of Education. She specializes in curriculum development, instructional improvement, working with at-risk students, and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26:

“What if we looked for solutions instead of complaining about what’s wrong?”

~"Kids Deserve It!” By Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome on page 87

You’ve heard all the stories about the notorious lunch room complaining. As a teacher or a leader, it makes you cringe as you think about the griping and whining that occurs within those four walls. Even when you are putting kids first and doing the right thing with the staff behind you, there is still complaining as folks adjust to serving students first and growing them to their maximum potential.

While some might call it venting, and part of it is, these actions often makes me reflect on how healthy and productive this is for a staff. What if after the venting and complaining, someone turned the conversation to ways to help address the problem. What if lunch time was spent talking about additional ways we can support students and be innovative with our teaching instead of placing the blame everywhere but ourselves? Imagine the potential and the energy when you shift your perspective from being negative to being proactive...the possibilities are endless.

This quote makes me think about the way I can help support those that I lead. There will always be complaining and venting. However, as Todd Whitaker often says, “you make your decisions off your best teachers, not your worst.” The more I can cultivate and lift up those that are focused on looking for solutions, the stronger our organization will be. I believe that the more I focus on solutions and support those that do, it in time will positively impact those that often don’t transition from venting or complaining to being solution seekers. This is a great quote for all of us to reflect on how we behave and talk as someone is always watching and we impact those around us.

“If you face something and find that you struggle...it means that you are perfectly positioned for powerful learning.”

~"The Writing on the Classroom Wall” by Steve Wyborney on page 78

We preach growth mindset and to celebrate failures with our students and staff, but it can be hard to embrace and actually put it into practice as a leader. While many of us like to think that we embrace challenges, struggle, and opposition, there are still a handful of us that in the midst of going through these experiences shy away. I get it...we don’t want to suck and failure is not something that is always embraced by those above or below us, let alone those within the community we serve. However, how else do we get better? Often, the best learning opportunities we face is through experiences such as these. Perhaps when people are faced with struggles, we need to step back and not pass judgment but instead lift them up to help support them as they continue to grow as individuals.

This quote speaks to me in helping provide inspiration and motivation to understand the bigger picture while I am in the middle of a struggle. While I am a very determined, driven, and motivated individual and there is a large part of me that doesn’t want to fail even though I know it is where the real learning comes from. Instead of getting frustrated, complaining, or wanting to completely disengage from the situation, this quote helps inspire me to embrace the struggle and experience on a personal level. On the flip side, it also helps puts things into perspective and provides some insight for when I talk with others and they share how they might be struggling.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified ELA/Reading teacher currently on loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction where she works on recruitment and retention initiatives like beginning teacher support. With over thirty years in education, Cindi is a cheerleader for the profession as evidenced in her book Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teacher Leaders Network, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

Parker J. Palmer’s entire book “The Courage to Teach” has impacted my teaching. A title like that sounds just like the information I needed when studying for my master’s in education after I’d been teaching almost 20 years. At that point, I knew about the courage I needed. Courage had failed me on many occasions.

But the opening of the book pulled me right in: “I’m a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy.” It was as if someone took Dr. Palmer’s book and whacked me over the head. Yes! I can hardly hold the joy! He had me at “teacher at heart.”

But later in the book, Dr. Palmer himself jumped off the pages and spoke to me:

“If a work does not gladden me...I need to consider laying it down. When I devote myself to something that does not flow from my identity, that is not integral to my nature, I am most likely deepening the world’s hunger rather than helping to alleviate it.”

“There are times when we must work for money rather than meaning, and we may never have the luxury of quitting a job because it does not make us glad. But that does not release us from continually checking the violence we do to others and ourselves by working in ways that violate our souls. Nor does it relieve us from wondering whether preserving integrity is a luxury. What brings more security in the long run: holding this job or honoring my soul?”

So many times throughout my career, I have screamed Dr. Parker J. Palmer’s words inside my head (and then changed classrooms, schools, school districts, jobs): “I HAVE TO HONOR MY SOUL!”

Soul honoring guides me even now. I hope it guides you, too.

Thanks to Rita, Fred, Arpine, Racahel and Cindi 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.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

Author Interviews

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days...

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