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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.

Teaching Opinion

Educators Must Have a ‘Plan of Action’ to Confront Our Challenges

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 18, 2020 9 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the biggest dangers facing schools, teachers, and their students right now?

Schools, teachers, students, and their families are always facing challenges, including ones which could certainly be characterized as “dangers.” This series will consider what these biggest dangers might be...

Part One‘s contributors were Marian Dingle, Meg Riordan, Deana Simpson, and Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Marian, Meg, and Deana on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Mary Cathryn Ricker, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, and Kelly Wickham Hurst offer their responses.

You can also see the next question-of-the-week after their commentaries.

We must “come together to construction solutions”

Mary Cathryn Ricker is Minnesota’s commissioner of education. She is a national-board-certified middle school English teacher elected as executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers in July 2014. Ricker served as president of the St. Paul (Minn.) Federation of Teachers from 2005 to 2014, as an AFT vice president since 2012, and as a member of the AFT K-12 Teachers program and policy council, 2006-14. A native of Hibbing, Minn., Ricker has taught in classrooms in St. Cloud and St. Paul, Minn.; Camas, Wash.; and Seoul, South Korea. Ricker also serves on the boards of the NBPTS and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP):

There are some obvious dangers facing schools, educators, and our students right now. Shrinking school budgets, because of the growing inequality between those who shirk their responsibility to invest in strong public school systems and those who try but cannot fundraise our way to excellence, threaten everything we know will prepare our students for success in an increasingly shrinking global community. Rather than world language for all, it is relegated to a narrow high school program. Rather than a comprehensive plan to address the health and wellness of our students, we will be asked to ration physical education, access to nurses, counselors, or social workers. We will be asked to house more students in our classrooms AND asked to provide more personalization at the same time.

We have seen time and time again how vulnerable we are to gun violence in our schools. Compartmentalizing responses to this very real danger to discussing increasingly weaponized schools wastes time and exposes a profound naivety to the most successful conditions for a safe and welcoming school climate.

One of the things that both frightens me and spurs me into activism is the fear of threats to our students and their families being so powerful that our school community can’t protect them. School is a place where students should feel safe to express themselves, who they are, and the soon-to-be-successful adults they are becoming. Thoughtful educators and school communities have protocols in place to address bullying and intimidating behavior in schools, on buses, and on our playgrounds. However, our students and their families’ experience bullying and intimidating behavior in our communities as well. We have a responsibility as educators to work alongside our co-workers, our students and their families, and our neighbors, to address threats wherever they are found.

That is our responsibility for any of these threats facing our students, our public schools, and our profession—what is our plan of action to work to change a parsimonious budget and great expectations? What is our plan of action to end the threat of gun violence for everyone? How do we create safe and welcoming communities, where our public schools are an essential part, everywhere? There is nothing about these big problems that is impossible to solve. These great dangers thrive in the illusion of feeling powerless to do anything about them. When we come together to construct solutions, educators-families-neighbors stand shoulder to shoulder insisting on solutions that recognize our common humanity, that no one will be invisible, the dignity in all work, the contributions everyone in the community makes. We have a great amount of power, not just to name the dangers our students and school communities face, but also to face them and eliminate those dangers as well.

Teacher Burnout

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at the University of Cambridge but lives most of the year in California writing books for educators like First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. She has a Ph.D. in education and served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer:

Teacher burnout is one of the biggest dangers facing schools, teachers, and students right now. Out of all students, teacher burnout lands the hardest blow on traditionally underserved students, such as poor kids and students of color. This makes teacher burnout an equity issue that impacts how quickly society can improve to give all kids an equal chance at success in life.

Consider these statistics from my book on teacher burnout:

  • Some researchers suggest that 41 percent of teachers leave their jobs within five years of starting (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey, 2014).

  • 15 percent of teachers leave the profession each year, but this statistic rises significantly to an annual loss of 20 percent of teachers when it comes to high-poverty schools serving traditionally underserved populations of students (Haynes, 2014).

  • The Allliance For Excellent Education estimates that losing early-career teachers costs the U.S. up to $2.2 billion every year (Haynes, 2014).

  • Poor students are often in schools that lose half their teachers every five years (Coggins, 2017).

  • Poor students and students of color are two times as likely to have an inexperienced teacher, and students with new teachers do not learn as much (Coggins, 2017).

First, to acknowledge the obvious, wearing down teachers with unsustainable workloads, unrealistic demands, and inadequate support in meeting these demands “burns out” good teachers. This means teachers struggle, suffer, and ultimately quit. For these heroes who serve in what is arguably the most important job in all society, this norm is unfair and needs to change.

But burnout doesn’t just hurt teachers. It also hurts students and their communities. High teacher turnover rates rob students of stable adult relationships, disrupt school culture, hamper student achievement, erode trust between teachers and students, and are especially damaging in neighborhoods serving poor kids and students of color (Neufeldnov, 2014). If you consider that students in high-poverty schools are more prone to unstable adult relationships in their personal lives, you can imagine how forging relationships with teachers who then disappear the following year reinforces feelings of loss, abandonment, and distrust.

Schools suffer from the steep loss in funds that teacher absence and attrition produces (Haynes, 2014; Stanley, 2014) and the repercussions of hiring new and less experienced teachers to replace teachers who quit. Tremendous effort, funds, and time goes into preparing our teachers for the difficult job they do. This is true on the part of teachers, who also contribute a fair amount of (sometimes figurative) blood, sweat, and tears, and it is also true on the part of fellow K-12 educators, professors, and other stakeholders who invest in helping teachers learn and advance their skills. When we lose good teachers, we throw this investment away. We set back the education institution, we hurt teachers, and we hurt kids. This loss hampers all our other efforts to help kids and is easily one of the greatest dangers we face.

Kids don’t feel safe

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of six and grandmother of two and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill.:

Safety. Kids don’t feel safe and neither do the adults in buildings. They don’t know when someone is going to bring a gun and we’ll have our next massacre. It’s not dramatic to say that, either. They want and deserve safety. We have failed them on this and have missed an entire generation of children who have to think differently about the places they come to learn. It devastates me to consider their fears. Foundationally, this stems from us not using culturally relevant pedagogy with an anti-bias, anti-racist lens. Because, frankly, these are white-privileged boys who are constantly centered, and we’re ignoring what else is going on with them. They’ve become a danger we don’t want to talk about.

Next question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

In what ways can reading support writing instruction?

Thanks to Mary Cathryn, Jenny, and Kelly 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.

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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