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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 Toughest Part of Teaching Is...’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 20, 2017 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What do you think is the toughest part of teaching and how do you deal with it?

Teaching has no shortage of tough moments. What are the most common ones, and how can we best get through them?

That’s the question this two part series will consider, and today’s contributors are Roxanna Elden, Robert Ward, Cindi Rigsbee, Megan Allen, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Daniel Jerome, and Lois Weiner. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Robert and Cindi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

The toughest parts of teaching for me are class dependent. For example, in my English Language Learner courses, the biggest challenge is differentiating between new students coming in who are not literate in their home language and students who may have been here already for a year. In an intervention class, classroom management is probably the toughest part. And when I teach my International Baccalaureate courses, it’s not easy changing my teaching mindset from those other classes and/or, when I do, moderating it and not going too far in the opposite direction.

Though the challenges are different, my ways to deal with them are similar: be relational, not reactive; emphasize developing intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation; and trying to reflect first and act second.

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She also speaks at events around the country, providing training and support for teachers and sharing a teacher’s eye view on a variety of education issues:

One thing that always frustrated me as a teacher was watching non-educators debate education. Even those who were trying to support teachers missed the nuances that came from actual classroom experience. Once I waded into these public conversations myself, however, I learned that speaking in front of a class did not prepare me to be heard in these public debates.

This was a surprise. After all, teachers are professional communicators. We speak in front of students all day, and they can be a tough crowd. But this doesn’t mean good teaching makes for good TV.

In fact, the skills that help us in the classroom can hurt when we try to join public discussions about education. To understand why, it helps to understand something called “media training.”

Most politicians, brand representatives, and celebrities have had some form of this training, and in some ways, it’s exactly the opposite of the communication skills we’ve learned as educators. Here are some main differences.

Educators have learned that we may think we’re speaking to a room full of people... but we’re actually speaking to unique, individual children.
Media trainers teach speakers that they may think they’re speaking to a room full of people... but they’re actually speaking to a larger audience who may be watching on TV.

Educators plan lessons we can teach in approximately 45 minutes. If a lesson ends early, we might lose control of the class.
Media trainers recommend planning “quotable quotes” that last about 9 seconds each. If a quote goes on too long, a speaker might lose control of the message.

Educators are supposed to answer all questions, directly and thoroughly.
Media trainers teach speakers to “stay on message,” repeating one of three main points to answer every question.

In summary -

Education means encouraging critical thinking so students can arrive at their own, well-informed conclusions.
Media training means framing the discussion to talk about what the speaker to talk about and discourage alternate conclusions.

At first, this bothered me. I felt like teachers were at a disadvantage - especially when I learned that a day of personal media training can cost up to $4,000! (Compare this to most teacher workshops, where the muffins are cut in half to save money.) Over time, however, I realized media training is a skill like any other, and teachers can learn it to help to make our voices heard. If you’d like a quick, self guided mini-workshop, here’s my media-training Prezi for educators.

Response From Robert Ward

Robert Ward is currently in his twenty-fourth year of teaching English at public middle schools in Los Angeles. In addition to his own blog, Robert’s articles have been featured in Edutopia, Education Week, ACSD, NCTE, the U.S. Dept. of Education’s “The Teacher’s Edition” newsletter, International Literacy Association, and other educational journals. Robert is also the author of three books for teachers and parents published by Rowman and Littlefield. Interact with Robert on Twitter at @RewardingEdu:

After twenty-three years in the classroom, teaching gets tougher for me with every sweeping swing of the educational pendulum. Like clockwork, a “new” strategy or solution is inevitably espoused, everyone eagerly (or forcibly) jumps on the bandwagon, and the poor baby is again thrown out with the bathwater.

Occasionally, these shifts are truly progressive and positive. However, far too many are fads or kneejerk reactions based on furor or fear, with the students paying the price for each misguided reversal, recommendation, or ruling.

Yet these extreme changes also stigmatize those teachers who have a penchant for thinking critically, proceeding with caution, preserving balance--and speaking their minds. Why isn’t the careful consideration of reason, relevance, and measure valued in teachers as much as we say we desire these qualities in our students?

Be it lockers or lockdowns, construction paper or constructivism, social promotion or social media, dropping out or opting out, peer pressure or peer mediation, blended families or blended learning, sex ed or sexting, multiple choice or multiple intelligences, zero tolerance or zero period, main ideas or mainstreaming, teaching the textbook or teaching to the test, dumbing down or top-down management, homework or homeschooling, curricular mandates or mandated reporters, skillsets or mindsets, dittos or data... teachers have endured and experimented a lot--and not always by choice.

Weigh the merits of these ideals and actualities for yourself, and add others you either loathe or love. Yet the point is not to incite an educational debate about what specifically warrants change. It is instead to advocate for a reliable, rational, and proportional approach to education that allows for innovation, inspiration, interaction, and autonomy, while still holding teachers and students accountable, if not for every expectation and outcome, then at least for their integrity, involvement, and effort.

I personally withstand the wild winds of change by closing my classroom door and providing my students with a consistent, coordinated combination of what my insight and experience assures me they need most. Yet I always leave open a window of possibility, welcoming in the cool breezes of interesting ideas that reinvigorate and refine my teaching as directly benefit my students.

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:

The toughest part of teaching, to me, isn’t what you’d think. Yes, testing is difficult, and teacher evaluation is stressful. But I think the hardest part is related to time...and I don’t mean that I don’t have time to complete the work. (Even though I don’t.)

Think about a teacher’s daily routine. We hit the floor running every morning - we don’t check in with our colleagues, leisurely sip coffee, plan out our day - like our peers in the business world. We put out metaphorical fires all day, non-stop, from dealing with elementary boo-boos to high school breakups. We go and go and go with no break to reflect on the lesson we just delivered or the phone conversation we just had with a parent. We don’t have time to internalize the information we received at data meetings and professional development. We just go. (But not to the bathroom...there’s no time for that!)

Finally, the day is complete and we go home with lessons to plan, papers to grade, and phone calls to make.

If I could change anything about schools, it would definitely be the structure of the day. Bring middle schoolers in at 10:00, for example. They can get more sleep, like the research says they need, and the teachers will have two hours to plan, meet, and breathe.

I also think school schedules should be staggered: morning folks could teach from 7-3 and late owls could be in the building from 10-6. Teachers AND students could choose a schedule that works best for them and their families.

What if schools could be open for 24 hours? Classes could be offered at night, and computer labs and libraries could be open for the community.

I’m really weary of doing the same things the same way. Let’s change it up for the good of the students as well as for the teachers and administrators. Educators should be using time to our advantage, and our day-to-day work shouldn’t be exhausting.

Response From Megan Allen

Megan Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher, the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year, and the Director of the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership at Mount Holyoke College. A self-proclaimed education nerd, you can chat with her on Twitter at @redhdteacher or visit her Ed Week blog, An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy:

I think the toughest part of teaching is surviving in a dysfunctional system. Nationally, we have an amazingly high attrition rate, with it appearing even higher at our high needs schools. So the toughest part of teaching is surviving-and growing-in a system that is not necessarily built to support teachers and learning effectively.

There are a couple of things that need to change so we can help all of our teachers survive. First is to clean up the multiple pathways to the classroom. We have a thousand different avenues to the classroom, and some of them are not built to help support teachers in learning the complexity of the teaching profession. We need to make sure that every new teacher who enters the classroom is prepared skillfully.

Then we need to rethink how we support these new teachers once they transition to their first school after graduation. Perhaps a residency, where they are pulling small groups, subbing as a team, and working together to learn from the expert faculty members.

Last, we need to think about the system we have built around teaching and learning. Funding. Resources. Leadership. Professional learning (development). Politics. This is 30,000-foot level, but those things impact our schools. Both working and learning conditions. And we can make this happen by engaging in actionable conversations with teachers at the helm, transforming a system that doesn’t always support the students and teachers that live within it.

Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin is the author of First Aid to Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. This award-winning educator teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge after a K-12 career as teacher, administrator, and chief education & research officer:

The toughest part of teaching is managing the sheer volume of “things” you have to get done. Creating engaging, properly-aligned lessons (to supplement adoptions that just don’t cut it); giving every student the individualized support he or she needs; analyzing practice and making data-informed decisions; incorporating technology and new instructional approaches; making regular contact with students’ parents (at the secondary level this can easily surpass 200 people); finding time for committees, PD, PLCs, PLNs, supervisory duties... the list is endless.

To deal with this volume in a sustainable way (i.e., without burning out), successful teachers master the arts of being efficient, collaborative, and discerning:

- Example of efficient: Instead of hand-grading multiple-choice student surveys by hand, the teacher has students drop their surveys in a tray where the sheets are instantly scored with the $8 webcam hanging over the tray. These scores automatically populate the teacher’s data system, parent portal, student portal, and more and help the teacher instantly know how each student and key subgroups of students are feeling. Teachers without such technology work together to convince the school board and administrators of the need for crucial tools.

- Example of collaborative: Instead of finding and/or creating each lesson plan from scratch alone, teachers work together in PLCs to preplan instruction, share resources, and co-create needed content. As capable and self-sufficient as teachers are, tackling workload alone simply isn’t sustainable.

- Example of discerning: That lesson plan document doesn’t have to be formatted perfectly. A reflection paragraph doesn’t have to be written after every lesson. A sample diorama doesn’t have to be built by the teacher when last year’s students’ work can be shown as an example for students. Teachers need to fight the perfectionist bug and routinely let go of not-so-necessary tasks (I say this knowing it’s the hardest advice for me to follow).

There are so many ways teachers can be more efficient, collaborative, and discerning. Given the demands of the teaching profession, doing so is a necessity to combating burnout so teachers can find long-term peace and success in the profession. Given their role as world-changing hero, teachers deserve to have time for their personal lives when they aren’t at school, and to feel ongoing joy when they’re at work.

Response From Daniel Jerome & Lois Weiner

Daniel Jerome is an experienced NYC public school teacher and dean of students. Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University and Director of the Urban Education and Teacher Unionism Policy Project:

The toughest part of teaching in urban schools...

The toughest part of teaching in urban schools is that we can’t do the impossible and we tend to take it out on each other.

Teachers are expected to make a dollar out of 15 cents day in and day out, eight periods a day. And when we come up 50 cents short we blame each other.

If only the Deans were tougher! If that kid only cared about his education! If that parent stopped enabling that child! If my co-teacher knew the material!

Negative experiences spread across the campus as teachers hear the story about the 9th grader reading on a third grade level or the and boy who can’t keep his hand to himself. And we bring home the stories of the neglected child, the angry belligerent parent, our incompetent colleagues and ineffective systems.

The true sources of our frustration - the political and economic systems that neglect our most needy children remain invisible and hidden and sometimes too abstract to fully explain. You don’t see them, but you experience their well documented effects: Crowded classrooms, broken technology, students with undiagnosed mental and physical health disorders, desperate parents looking for resources, and undereducated children. And like the young people we serve, who often live in poor, neglected communities, we take it out on each other.

No Child Left Behind was a failure. (All students proficient by 2014?...whatever proficient means.) but the pressure was real. The bipartisan Race to the Top program further emphasized a data-driven (not data-informed) approach to education. The Common Core standards, whether good or bad were enacted with such speed and sloppiness that many teachers still don’t understand them. Forty-five of 50 state governments have been sued to level the financial playing field.

And as we all scramble to keep up with the latest initiative handed down from above, become familiar with the newly released curriculum, try to reach our ever-changing data metric, we inevitably fail more than we succeed. But rarely do we respond collectively, as some of us know we should: To demand better working conditions. To demand more resources for ourselves and our families. To demand greater voice in our schools. To demand more time to prepare and plan.

And when we do, not only do we improve the conditions for our students, teachers, and families, we also build the connections and bonds that allow us to be our best selves. That’s what we have to do now. It’s not an easy solution but it’s the one we need to embrace, quickly.

Thanks to Roxanna, Robert, Cindi, Megan, Jenny, Daniel and Lois 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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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.