Opinion Blog

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.

School & District Management Opinion

The Single Most Effective Thing Administrators Can Do: Shut Up and Listen

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 07, 2024 11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This multipart series will share what educators think is the most important single action administrators can take to support teachers and students.

Personally, my choice would be having administrators lead with their ears and not their mouths. In other words, they would emphasize listening to staff members instead of assuming they know better than the staff. Then, they would follow up what they hear (and see) with inquiry and curiosity, rather than judgment.

Here are others’ suggestions:

‘Relationships’

Glasher Robinson is a school administrator with the Guilford County school district in North Carolina. She subscribes to the following quote in her leadership, “To truly love, we must learn to mix various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” — bell hooks:

The most fundamental component of my leadership is relationships. Once you build a connection with individuals, whether it is students, teachers, or even families, it makes the school environment feel more welcoming and safer. Love and belonging are a part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, which says in short that humans have a desire to feel loved and to belong to a part of a group. As a leader, I aim to create a family atmosphere. I design opportunities to make deposits into the “relationship bank” established between myself and those I lead before seeking withdrawals.

Deposits come in the form of effective communication with a heavy emphasis on listening, trust, consistency, and a genuine expression of care. Time is the most valuable asset a leader can give. While it does not always feel as though I have the luxury to do so, I try to take time to just be present with my students and teachers. The deposits should be visible through your daily actions and are to be viewed as an investment rather than a savings. Investments require you to pay attention to them, and when done well, they grow over time. As a result, when I make a request as a leader or a withdrawal, then there is less opposition and a greater sense of willingness to accomplish the task at hand.

With students, I start by learning their name, either first or last name, and then identify their preference of what they would like to be called. Moments like morning or lunch duty become opportunities to find out more about students both through conversation and observations. You garner an idea of who the young people are that you serve.

I lead students through preparation for life. I help students develop an understanding of themselves as individuals and what they have to offer the world currently and in the future. This is an important perspective to have because all the decisions you make as a school administrator are in the best interests of the students.

My initial interactions with teachers are similar. I personally always refer to my teachers by last name, which may be tailored to include their honorific titles like Dr., Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Coach. I foster relationships with teachers by learning about where they are from, what college/university they graduated from, family, their interests, and their goals (personal or professional). Every day, I speak to teachers as I see them throughout the building, visit their classes, and I will send text messages or emails to check in when I have not been able to connect face to face.

I agree with the idea that for teachers to do their best, they must be at their best. I strive to encourage work-life balance and be empathetic as I work with teachers to positively impact the lives of students. As I get to know students and teachers, I will share with them quotes, books, podcasts, professional development ideas, or even memes that I know they will connect with. Those deposits allow me to have courageous conversations with students and teachers. It establishes a reciprocal expectation of accountability and vulnerability. Investments do not provide a guaranteed return of profit. I nurture my investments and I recognize my highest dividends yields manifest through students and teachers volunteering to help me with an assignment, giving me cards, or simply acknowledging my hard work.

My mission is to grow students academically, grow teachers professionally, and to grow everyone, myself included, personally. As an administrator, I seek to create and identify experiential learning opportunities for my students and teachers to participate in that imbue them with a greater sense of who they are, their purpose in life, and a desire to make the world better. I desire for the outcomes and impacts of my work to be my legacy. I believe I am planting seeds today that will bloom into flowers in the future!

mymission

‘Deep Listening’

Hieu Pham-Fraser is a district principal of diversity, equity and inclusion in British Columbia, Canada. Her book, The Little Girl has been used to deepen learning on how we, as educators, can create more welcoming spaces for all students:

After 28 years as an educator, I would say that deep listening is the most effective action a teacher or principal can take. Deep listening goes beyond surface-level communication, requiring active engagement to understand and empathize with students and colleagues. This approach is particularly important for racialized folks, as it makes space to address the dynamics of racial inequities. By deeply listening, we create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and supported. It also helps us challenge our biases and assumptions. Let’s reflect on the power of deep listening to connect and create a more inclusive educational system.

The Listening Leader by Shane Safir emphasizes the value of skillful listening. It enables us to understand the needs, perspectives, and experiences of colleagues and students, leading to improved decisionmaking and identification of areas for growth. Additionally, it fosters stronger connections and collaboration within our educational community. Regrettably, some school environments fail to acknowledge and address the experiences of racialized staff and students. This results in instances of explicit racism, causing distress and further polarizing the staff.

So, I’d like to dive deeper into how we can practice deep listening in our schools. Let’s begin with some easy structures we can put into place. When I was a school principal, I established an open-door policy. Creating a welcoming and accessible workplace is easy. By keeping my door open and offering a bowl of candy, staff can grab a treat whenever they need to, without any hassle or conversation. Indulging in a candy to boost morale during a challenging afternoon turned into a delightful tradition among the staff, adding an element of fun and camaraderie to the workplace. Within the year, staff felt comfortable entering my office to discuss bigger issues, issues that involved questions of equity, pedagogy and more.

In my office, I made it a point to create a focused atmosphere. By taking a deep breath and clearing away any distractions, I dedicated myself to listening to the needs of those who entered. I reminded myself to withhold judgment and I resisted the urge to speak. Instead, I sought to ask only clarifying questions. I acknowledge that I am constantly learning and improving my listening skills as I write this article. It was a slow process, but over time, staff, students, and parents came to trust that I was a listener.

But what about the school community as a whole? What about staff meetings where we must engage in decisionmaking? I know that BIPOC students and families continue to face systemic challenges and barriers that staff can help with. But how can we courageously engage in dialogue to make real change? In order to address important issues of anti-racism, it was essential to establish a culture of belonging among staff.

The practice of circles has been a valuable tool for me. Using circles, I have witnessed how it fosters a sense of community and promotes meaningful engagement among students, encouraging deep listening and critical thinking. The student achievement I witnessed left an indelible mark on me. The most important principle I learned about circle is that we are all connected. When someone is hurt, we, as a circle community are hurt. It is important to acknowledge that circle has no beginning or end, that we come to circle with histories and backgrounds, and that we leave circle to contribute to a collective future together. Circle has no top and bottom; therefore, the hierarchy is flattened. In a circle, all members have equal time to speak.

Whenever I used the circle protocol with students and staff, I witnessed an increased ability for participants to listen and empathize. I have used circle in situations to heal as well. When emotions run high and hurt causes staff to judge and argue, circle has held space for all to listen and understand. I continue to use circle in my practice to develop deep listening within myself and among the different groups of students and staff that I support.

As educators, deep listening and ongoing self-reflection are required competencies to lead equitable and anti-racist school communities. We must recognize our own biases and privileges and actively seek to listen to and learn from the diverse perspectives and experiences of our colleagues and students. By doing so, we can create a culture of belonging and support in our schools, where everyone feels heard, valued, and respected

deeplistening

‘Insulate Teachers’

PJ Caposey is the Illinois Superintendent of the Year and was a finalist for the National Superintendent of the Year as well as being a best-selling author, having written nine books for various publishers. PJ is a sought after presenter and consultant who has a widely read weekly newsletter available at www.pjcaposey.com:

Before I begin and as a point of clarity, I think the answer is much different as a building administrator.

I have a love/hate relationship responding to questions that ask for the single most effective strategy or important role or action someone can take. I enjoy the fact that it makes me think deeply and distill my thoughts, but I get frustrated because nothing is as simple as one particular action. That said, after much consternation, I have what I believe to be the most important thing I can do for my teachers as a superintendent.

The most important thing I can do to best serve my teachers is to insulate them from as much nonsense as possible so that they can do their primary job of serving students. In my nine-plus years as a superintendent, we have attempted to pass three referenda and worked through two-plus years of COVID.

Translation, it has been a bumpy ride.

I have done my best to attempt to insulate my teachers from all of the stuff going on outside of the school—the issues of note in the community and in society—so that they can continue to change the lives of kids on a daily basis. As a result, this meant that I needed to lead from the front on all of the hard issues. I was the subject of the message board fodder. I was the one getting yelled at while at the grocery store and at the breakfast diner.

Surprisingly, that is the easiest part of acting as a layer of protection for your teachers. The hard part is saving them from, you guessed it, ME!!

I have had to fight hard to NOT be reactionary in both positive and negative ways. If I can stay steady, I can protect them from wild vacillations in our approach which would serve to exhaust instead of empower. I have tried to be the counterbalance to the popular thought of the day. When things appeared to be going poorly, I was the cheerleader for our team. When things are going well, I celebrate our successes like crazy in public but remind everyone of our desire for excellence and the need to continue pushing forward.

My job is to stay the course. I protect them from unnecessary change or shift in focus. I work to not waiver to popular opinion and political pressure to ensure that my teachers have clarity around the direction of our work. I work to not allow myself to get distracted by the next new idea or initiative.

I strive to be abundantly clear and remarkably consistent. And to be clear, I often fail. But that is my goal. I know that if I can keep focus for our team and not waiver or give in to outside or political pressures, the culture of my building will be stronger.

To be honest, thinking about this and writing it has been humbling. I like to consider myself an instructional leader who provides an innovative vision and helps to push us forward. I believe all of those qualities are important, but if I had to pick one thing all superintendents should do for their teachers it would be to act as a layer of protection from any of the politics and community issues that may be taking place in the background—and also from ourselves.

themostimportantpj

Thanks to Glasher, Heiu, and PJ for contributing their thoughts.

The question of the week for this column is:

If you are an administrator, what is the single most effective action you have taken to support teachers and students?

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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email.

And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Why Schools Struggle With Implementation. And How They Can Do Better
Improvement efforts often sputter when the rubber hits the road. But do they have to?
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School & District Management How Principals Use the Lunch Hour to Target Student Apathy
School leaders want to trigger the connection between good food, fun, and rewards.
5 min read
Lunch hour at the St. Michael-Albertville Middle School West in Albertville, Minn.
Students share a laugh together during lunch hour at the St. Michael-Albertville Middle School West in Albertville, Minn.
Courtesy of Lynn Jennissen
School & District Management Opinion When Women Hold Each Other Back: A Call to Action for Female Principals
With so many barriers already facing women seeking administrative roles, we should not be dimming each other’s lights.
Crystal Thorpe
4 min read
A mean female leader with crossed arms stands in front of a group of people.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management Opinion Want a Leadership Edge? You Already Have What You Need
School leaders are faced daily with challenging situations. Here's how to prevent the tail from wagging the dog in responding.
Danny Bauer
4 min read
Screen Shot 2024 04 05 at 5.35.06 AM
Canva