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Teaching Opinion

A Good Colleague Can Make or Break Any Teacher

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 18, 2022 18 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the most important lessons you have learned from your colleagues?

PJ Caposey, John Schu, Ann Stiltner, and Evan Robb began the series.

Today, Richard A. Decker, Jen Schwanke, Debbie Zacarian, Margarita Calderón, and Margo Gottlieb wrap things up.

‘Colleagues Matter’

Richard A. Decker (M.A., English) works at an alternative school in southern Virginia, where he teaches English 8-12, and he will be teaching there again this coming school year. Richard is enrolled in the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project’s Summer Institute where he is working on becoming a teacher consultant:

That “New Guy” Feeling

Being the “new guy,” a sub, and a Yankee in a rural southern Virginia high school was a challenge. It was my first teaching gig back in spring 2018—a long-term-sub position. I was teaching English 12 and AP Lit. & Comp. I was fresh out of a four-year English and teacher-preparatory program and had just completed my student-teaching about three weeks prior. I was a nervous wreck. Sometimes, I ate with my colleagues; sometimes, I did not. I asked plenty of verbose questions to one of my colleagues who I’m sure got tired of them. But she was polite. Still, I felt like I didn’t belong and I believe it was because of the lack of support I had during that time. I was treading water—holding on to the few pieces of driftwood thrown out to me by my colleagues. I almost drowned.

Sink or Swim

Earlier, during my student-teaching days in fall 2017, I received some advice. My host teacher told me that it’s sink or swim your first year of teaching. She had a way of telling it like it is with a smile on her face. That same semester, she told me a story of another student-teacher she had who was tasked with teaching and grading a research paper. But apparently, one thing led to another, and this student-teacher never came back—and neither did the papers. This student-teacher sank.

I, too, may have sunk during those substitute-teaching days if not for the few pieces of driftwood that were (somewhat carelessly) thrown to me. And if that is the case, then maybe teaching should be more about collecting enough driftwood to build a makeshift raft as opposed to swimming or sinking.

Build a Raft

I recently finished my first full-time gig at an alternative high school—also in southern Virginia—and instead of having that “new guy” feeling and almost drowning, I was able to float on a makeshift raft. Compared with that of my substitute gig, the support from my colleagues this past year was outstanding. My colleagues taught me the power that support from your administration, co-workers, and mentors can have on a first-year teacher.

One might think that working at an alternative high school with at-risk students would be miserable. It’s not . . . though it is challenging. But I have been able to take on this challenge with the support of great colleagues. During my first week, my assigned mentor made sure to make herself available and to explain to me some of the challenges of working with at-risk students. My other mentor (outside the building) taught me how to use “love and logic” in the classroom. The school’s child-study team would step in and give all the staff, including me, goodie-bags with notes of encouragement. My co-teacher always supported my decisions and gave me guidance when needed, and my principal was always there to hear me out—even through tears.

Each word of encouragement, each bit of wisdom, and each goody bag was a piece of driftwood, and I had enough pieces to build a decent-sized makeshift raft to help me float across my first full year of teaching—even in rough waters.

If nothing else, my colleagues, both past and present, have taught me that the “new guy or gal” does not have to either sink or swim, because with good colleagues, a new teacher can make it through each year if he or she has enough driftwood to build a makeshift raft and float atop the rough waters of the teaching world. My colleagues have taught me that it is not the building or the students that cause one to sink or swim but instead one’s colleagues. Colleagues matter, and I have learned that I, too, must be a good one for new teachers, so that I can provide them with a piece of driftwood for their makeshift rafts.


Fight Against ‘Loner Instincts’

Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

My colleagues have taught me that working alone isn’t healthy. Educators need one another for ideas, inspiration, accountability, and the sense of collegiality and safety that comes with teamwork.

Last week, my assistant, Katie, came to me. “We need to have some fun at our next staff meeting,” she said. “It’s just… well, people are in a rut. Grumpy. Disconnected.”

Bah. I let out a deep and exhausted internal sigh. I don’t have the energy for fun.

“I read about a team-building activity we should try.” She sat down. “It’s easy, inexpensive, and it’s going to be so much fun for everyone.”

I tried to hide my grumpiness. “OK,” I said, resigned. Oh, the irony.

But when we rolled out our fun plan at the next staff meeting, I found myself having a great time. So did everyone else. Afterward, teachers came to us and told us how much they appreciated our activity. “Much needed,” they said. “It changed my mindset,” they said. Several planned to use the activity with their students, who, they felt, could use some rut-busting themselves.

I was grateful Katie had gotten me out of my own way. My rut had been limiting me, shoving me into a place where things felt comfortable and simple. But comfortable and simple are just a hop away from bored and tired.

It was just one of hundreds of examples in which input from a colleague shifted my perspective in much-needed ways. Left to my own choices, I would always choose to work alone, at my own pace, in charge of my time. I find peace and comfort in working alone. But it’s not good for me.

When I first started teaching, I had an amazing mentor in my team leader. She believed deeply in the power of teams. She brought a joy and perspective to our work that made it seem like play. There were five of us on the team, and our meetings were a perfect mixture of all-business productivity and just hanging out. We worked together for four years, and for four years, we met at 11:00 every Tuesday morning. I woke up every single Tuesday genuinely excited for our meeting. From those teachers, I learned much about student advocacy, curriculum, classroom management—and about getting along, in spite of the differences among us. From Christy, I learned that colleagues bring value and purpose to our jobs. To this day, I look forward to staff meetings, department meetings, curriculum reviews, committee work. I always come out having shifted my outlook, learned something, or been inspired to do something differently or better.

Settling exclusively in one’s own head slowly narrows one’s point of view. It limits the capacity we have to learn and grow. Colleagues are always teaching us something, even if they irritate us, even if we disagree. I wish I’d counted every time I have been blown away, chastised, enlightened, corrected, inspired, and moved toward improvement by one of my colleagues. Their ideas move me; their accountability keeps me focused on the right things. They make me push back against my loner instincts, and I am better for them.


‘Our Collective Strengths’

Debbie Zacarian of Zacarian & Associates brings three decades experience as a district leader, university faculty, and educational service-agency program director. Debbie’s written and co-written books and consulting focuses on strengths-based leadership and instructional practices with culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

Debbie Zacarian, Margarita Calderón, and Margo Gottlieb are co-authors of Beyond Crises: Overcoming Linguistic and Cultural Inequities in Communities, Schools and Classrooms:

Crises, whenever they occur, can be an opportunity for imagining what can be accomplished by working together. Like the teachers who drove to my neighborhood to visit with students and families; like the school superintendent in North Reading, Mass., who personally brought a Chromebook to my nephew’s home; like co-writer Michael Silverstone, who held a virtual potluck supper with students and families to continue that traditional social event; like co-writer Ivannia Soto, who began each class by asking students to share their personal “rose” and “thorn” experiences to support each other; like co-writers Margarita Calderón and Margo Gottlieb, who devoted countless hours to supporting educators to feel empowered during this incredibly challenging time—all these educators did this and still do to demonstrate how much we can accomplish by truly caring for and about each other.

Whatever the crises, we can learn a lot when we are “in it together,” because we know that we are not silos unto ourselves. We are part of a larger whole that is interconnected, interrelated, and even interdependent.

We flourish as an interdependent, interconnected ecosystem


Image by Debbie Zacarian

We don’t want our students just to get by or survive a crisis; we want them to be successful in school and in their lives. That takes all of us working together just as trees in the forest do.

Trees need air, water, and the sun to grow. While these characteristics are important to consider, every tree also needs an additional element, a sustainable “ecosystem” not just to survive but to flourish. The same holds true for every one of our students.

We flourish when we work from our collective strengths

It’s crucial to look for students’ many positive personal, cultural, linguistic, and life experiences and take as much time to support them to see their many competencies. We must do the same to socialize, work, and learn together. For example, early into the COVID-19 crises, editor Dan Alpert brought writers together to see how we were doing. While we shared what was working and challenging, the biggest takeaway was seeing the strengths in our collaborating and supporting each other. For example, several invited me to attend their Zoom workshops so I could gain footing into this new “virtual-only” teaching sphere.

We gain much more than we could imagine by working and learning from each other

I became more active on Twitter because of the support of Tan Huynh and Joy Scott Ressler (who embraced my many questions on how to do this and that). I also became a cheerleader of others to spark our collective belief that we could do this job of teaching despite the hardships.

Some of the biggest lessons that I learned came from three special school districts. At Wolfe Street School in Baltimore, a myriad of remote after- and out-of-school activities were implemented virtually including robotics, yoga, art, theater, and debate.

At Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, Mich., its outreach worker, Amal Qayed, principal, Susan Stanley, and others worked with service agencies and businesses to ensure its students had food and the classroom supplies needed to learn from home.

During the height of the pandemic, the Brockton public schools in Massachusetts purchased smartphones for its multilingual support team to continue the one-to-one family contacts that had worked successfully before the pandemic. When the governor of Massachusetts ordered that all schools be closed, it launched its universal free breakfast and lunch program through a “bag and go” initiative in 10 locations and a call center supported by volunteer school nurses and school adjustment counselors to provide assistance to the district’s family and school staff communities. Grant funding has ensured that every student has a computer and WiFi. According to Kellie Jones, the director of its English-learner programming, multilingual students’ tech savviness has greatly increased.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow pioneered the importance of looking at human behavior through the lens of the assets, capacities, and qualities that empower people and their communities to flourish. We can overcome inequities when we truly work together, embrace the goodness of each other, and support everyone to feel safe, valued, competent, and a sense of belonging to our communities, schools, and classrooms.


‘The Show Must Go On!’

Margarita Espino Calderón is professor emerita at Johns Hopkins University. Margarita conducts yearlong whole school institutes on meeting the needs of MLs/ELs and striving students. She has 150 research journal and educational magazine articles, book chapters, teacher manuals, reading series, and books:

My colleagues over these past two years have been principals, language specialists, family liaisons, and many English-learners that I have met and worked with virtually from coast to coast. Despite the occasional fumble and tumble with Zoom and Google Teams, there are messages of hope that come through those sometimes faceless screens. These exemplary schools and colleagues shared with me three important lessons to keep in mind for future years and future crises:

  • The show must go on!
  • Multilingual learners are developing new skills. We need to be ready!
  • Let’s get everyone involved!

The show must go on!

My favorite teachers and administrators realize how important it is to quickly move beyond crises: COVID, lack of internet for many of their students, lack of preparation for hybrid teaching and leading, and many more to come. Early in the pandemic, these schools embraced learning of skills necessary for teaching and reaching MLs in hybrid situations. Rather than wait, teachers participated in regular professional development to prepare for the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Multilingual learners are developing new skills. We need to be ready!

No more excuses that there was learning loss due to the interruptions that COVID caused. Small teams of educators surveyed the community: parents, local businesses, and students. They found that MLs and ELs had been helping neighborhood families with chores, translations, babysitting and much more, including helping parents with their jobs. When this information was presented, educators soon realized that the MLs and ELs would be returning to school with broader global understandings and skills. This meant that the traditional curriculum had to be revised to include more project-based learning, community service, credits for translating/interpreting, and STEM projects emphasizing the “E” (engineering) for students who worked or helped in construction or mechanical services – all undergirded by SEL competencies.

Let’s get everyone involved!

Acknowledging the insurmountable tasks for the whole school, the principals entrusted the counselors and psychologists to work with the SEL consultant to have alternative plans for long-term English-learners, newcomers with interrupted formal education, and homeless students. Besides the plans for the students’ welfare, the counselors were to reconfigure schedules at the middle and high schools that enabled greater equity toward graduation and extracurricular-activity participation (e.g., sports, music, clubs).

During the summer break before the new school year, teams of core content and ESL/ELD teachers developed lessons that integrate language/academic vocabulary, reading, writing skills development, and social-emotional-learning competencies in core subjects. These were piloted in the fall and refined in the spring. As a precursor to this summer project, the district language specialists offered comprehensive professional development and coaching to ensure that teachers would be ready to develop the integrated EL/ML instructional units. Online and after-school tutorial programs were also analyzed for adaptability.

Co-teaching models at these schools are being explored as a whole faculty. Hiring more ESL/ELD teachers is indispensable. Everyone agrees that English-learners need more attention. One way to address this is to retool co-teachers with 50-50 turn-taking. For example, the co-teaching in a science class not only focuses on the science concepts but also on teaching ELs and striving readers key language and how to apply reading-comprehension strategies/skills in science. SEL competencies are best practiced and learned during student work in pairs or teams during vocabulary, reading, writing, technology, and cooperative learning tasks as seen below.


Image by Margarita Espino Calderón

Going beyond crises and creating equity for MLs/ELs means creating stronger bridges between families, community health, social services, and the schools. It also means developing a network of schools and districts that go beyond the status quo to become models for others. These colleagues have taught me that collaboration at all levels is the key to great schools and amazing ML/EL results!


‘Emotional and Professional Support’

Margo Gottlieb, Ph.D., is the co-founder and lead developer of WIDA at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. As a staunch advocate of multilingual learners, she has helped design K-12 language standards and curriculum frameworks and has authored/ co-authored over 25 books and guides on academic-language development and assessment equity:

Let’s admit it, the last couple of years have been trying for everyone, including educators, families, and students. During this time, we have come to rely on our colleagues for both emotional and professional support. My colleagues have certainly supported me and have contributed to my continuing growth as an educator. Here are three of the many lessons that I have learned from their expertise and guidance.

  • Community-family-school relationships keep us interconnected.

Ongoing crises have brought us together as co-dependent human beings. We have created a closer bond through outreach that has ensured students and families receive necessary social and health services. The ingenuity of schools, classrooms, and communities in stimulating learning in multiple languages and in nontraditional ways has spurred new ways of thinking and acting. With home being a classroom and the classroom extending to home, we have enabled families to be recognized as central figures in teaching and learning. Colleagues have banded together to safeguard the community-home-school connection; its strength has stimulated student engagement and has helped shape student identities.

  • Digital literacy is an essential marker of our communication network.

The necessity of digital literacy stemming from the interaction of literacy and technology (a tenet of multiliteracies introduced by the New London Group, 1996), during the pandemic and beyond has increased my digital awareness and underscored its importance for multilingual learners. As someone who considers herself digitally naïve, the patience and expertise of my colleagues have pushed me into new horizons. The overall improvement of access to technology sparked by school districts and their outreach to communities has also compelled me to explore and use new applications and platforms. In essence, with growth in digital literacy, communication possibilities have expanded across local and global communities, schools, and classrooms.

  • Curriculum must be inclusive of multilingual learners’ and other minoritized students’ experiences inside and outside of school.

Colleagues of mine strongly endorse an assets-based philosophy for multilingual learners and other minoritized students with an equally strong presence in curriculum and assessment. While we understand that evidence-based research is a contributor to curricular decisionmaking for schools and districts, consideration for and engagement of multilingual learners have often been absent. My colleagues agree with me that research is necessary to advance teaching and learning, but it is not sufficient. What is equally important is establishing a close home-school relationship that capitalizes on the experiential knowledge, cultural insights, and expertise of the students and their families. Said another way, in any community with multilingual learners, neighborhood schools and classrooms must enact curriculum that is locally relevant and linguistically and culturally sustainable.

Colleagues and collaboration go hand in hand. More than anything else, we have come to realize that learning occurs in an array of contexts, starting at home, and in many modes, including online and in person. As with colleagues, when educators and families work together to overcome linguistic and cultural inequities of multilingual learners and apply lessons learned, we can accomplish so much more than we would or could by working in isolation.


Thanks to Richard, Jen, Debbie, Margarita, and Margo for contributing their thoughts!

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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