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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.

Teaching Opinion

‘Keep It Simple’ & Other ‘Best’ Teaching Advice From Educators

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 29, 2021 12 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

In 300 words or less, what is the most important teaching advice that you have either received or given?

Part One‘s guests were Chelonda Seroyer, Jenny Vo, PJ Caposey, Emily Golightly, Cindy Garcia, Mary K. Tedrow, Dr. Sawsan Jaber, and Aubrey Yeh. Chelonda, Jenny, PJ, and Emily were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s contributors are Keisha Rembert, Leah B. Michaels, Luiza Mureseanu, Jenny Edwards, Ph.D.,, Dr. Kulvarn Atwal, Sarah Brown, and Gretchen Bernabei.

‘I Was Overcomplicating Things’

Keisha Rembert is a passionate learner and fierce equity advocate. She was an award-winning middle school ELA and United States history teacher who now instructs preservice teachers. She hopes to change our world one student at a time. Twitter ID: @klrembert:

One of my best teacher friends always told me to keep it simple, and another one told me that “you cannot have my mind if you don’t have my heart.”

These “simple” pieces of advice changed my teaching and relationships with students.

I was overcomplicating things. I simply needed to know my students really well, continue my own learning, meet my students where they were, and guide them to know and do more than they knew they were capable of. If I got bogged down in all the distractions of education, I would not be able to focus on who and where my students were. If I didn’t know my students, they would not trust me, and if they did not trust me, then I could not effectively guide them and they would not believe in themselves and their potential.

Now, whenever my lesson has too much or I am struggling with a student, I think of that advice and somehow in the simple I find just what I need to understand the student or move the lesson forward. It works. I have offered the same advice to others with similar results.


Who’s Doing the Work?

Leah B. Michaels, a national-board-certified teacher, has taught English, ESOL, philosophy, and theory of Knowledge to students from grades 6-12 in England, the Bahamas, and several schools in the United States. A proud union member, she is on the board of directors for the Montgomery County Education Association and serves as the English Department chair at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.:

I had been teaching for six years but was in my first month at a new school when the principal walked into my room between classes as I was hurriedly moving desks into a circle. She asked me what I was doing. “Setting up for our Socratic Seminar,” I told her, glad to be prepping for a lesson I was very proud to show off.

Class began, and I handed out capture sheets to each student, set the timer to keep track of how long we spent on each question, and took out my clipboard to record student participation using a check/plus/minus system I created. It was a wonderful discussion: My students were well-prepared, having used the starter questions I wrote for them to take notes ahead of time so they could provide text evidence to support their comments when appropriate. They listened to each other respectfully and had a robust, engaging class session. I felt great when the principal left my room and I couldn’t wait to debrief with her because I was sure she’d tell me how much she enjoyed being there and how awesome my students were, and she did.

But she asked me a question that changed my teaching forever: “Who’s really doing the most work here, though?” The students could move the desks and keep the time, she pointed out, and, more importantly, they could have written the questions and created their own capture sheets to guide their participation, promote active listening, and note their peers’ responses that most resonated for them. “You’re working too hard,” she told me, “and when you do that, you’re taking away the students’ chance to make choices and take ownership of their learning.” I’ve asked myself, “Who’s doing the work” when lesson planning ever since.


Relationships With Students

Luiza Mureseanu is an instructional resource teacher-K-12, for ESL/ELD programs, in Peel District School Board, Ontario, with over 17 years of teaching middle and high school students in Canada and Romania:

The best teaching advice I have ever received was to start by getting to know my students and cultivate excellent relationships on the way.

I remember how at the beginning of my first teaching job, my attention and energy went entirely into planning creative lessons, following almost religiously the curriculum expectations, and working really hard to cover the daily plans. I would spend hours doing the planning while in school and even dedicate more hours after school, getting everything ready for the next day.

In my mind, being prepared was at the core of good teaching, and I was not going to let anything to change that course. I barely had time to do anything else in or outside school, but I was guided by a sense of accomplishment. Needless to say, I was extremely tired and I even felt that students did not have the desire to follow the rules and daily routines as expected.

One day, my mentor teacher came to see me after school, and she wanted to find out about my teaching. I always valued her advice and, of course, I was grateful for the help she gave me. After asking me about planning and teaching strategies, she asked me what I knew about my students. Honestly, I did not know much beyond the daily class interaction and the frugal information I gathered from the student records. So, what she told me next still resonates with me today. The most important part of teaching, she said, is the relationship we build with our students and everything else—planning and preparing—comes second. I guide my entire teaching on this piece of advice, and the rewards of having great relationships with my students are tremendous.


Taking Care of Ourselves

Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., has taught students in kindergarten through grade 5 and grade 7 as well as students in higher education. She is currently teaching in the Leadership for Change doctoral program in the School of Leadership Studies at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif.. She has written Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD, 2010) and Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD, 2014):

When I was teaching 2ndgrade, Jim Fay, our principal, would ask us at faculty meetings, “Who is the most important person in the classroom?” Of course, since we knew where he was going, we would answer, “The students!” “No,” he would say. “The most important person in the classroom is you—the teacher!” When we are taking care of ourselves, we are able to bring our whole selves into the classroom for the benefit of our students.

What are the implications of that statement? We are powerful role models for our students. When we come to school feeling happy and resourceful, our students will model that. In addition, by taking care of ourselves, we will be able to totally focus on helping our students to learn. We will be gentle and kind with them and we will be able to show them empathy when they are hurting.

What might be some ways we can take care of ourselves? Of course, we can get enough sleep each night, take time to exercise, and eat healthfully. We can spend joyful times with family and friends and we can do activities we enjoy such as painting, playing the piano or an instrument, etc. As a result, we will be able to come to school refreshed and ready to engage with our students. McGee-Cooper (1992) suggested taking “Joy Breaks.” We could determine what brings us joy in 3-5 minutes, five minutes to a half hour, a half day, and a full day. We could plan joy breaks into our day to give us activities to look forward to. If we feel our energy lagging, we could take a two- or three-minute joy break.


Mistakes Are Learning Opportunities

Dr. Kulvarn Atwal is currently the executive head teacher of two large primary schools in the London Borough of Redbridge. Dr. Atwal is the author of The Thinking School: Developing a Dynamic Learning Community, published by John Catt Educational. Follow him on Twitter @Thinkingschool2:

The most important piece of advice I give to teachers is to tell them that “learning is not a race” and to ensure that they focus on learning over time. This applies to both adults and children. We need to give time and space to students to think, question, and learn. Too many of our education systems are measured by that which is easily measurable—attainment in standardised tests. These place unnecessary pressures on teachers to attempt to move students on too quickly and apply short-term fixes. These unnecessary pressures mean that students aren’t given the space and time to think more deeply. Students see the learning experience in schools to be one in which the rules of the game are to acquire knowledge and to then recite this knowledge in written tests.

My advice is to think more longer term. Not what you want the students to learn by the end of this lesson. Focus on what you want them to learn over a six-week period. Focus on what skills you want students to gain to enable them to be successful in life. Encourage the students to take risks and make mistakes on the way and enable them to understand that this is a crucial part of the learning process. Enable them to see that creativity comes from successive failures. Enable them to question and discuss the topic/area of learning more deeply. What are they finding challenging and why? Enable students to believe in themselves and see that effort leads to success.

Students should see mistakes or a lack of understanding as a learning opportunity, not a failure.

Let them see that learning is not a race—through time and effort they will succeed.


‘Tomorrow Is a New Day’

Sarah Brown has been teaching 6th grade language arts and social studies at The Windward School for four years. She has always been a book lover, so she enjoyed researching dyslexia and language and reading development in both college and graduate school at Columbia University, Teachers College:

My teaching mantra is this: Every day is a blank slate—both for you and your students. While it may feel intimidating to embrace at times, all you need to do—and should plan to do—is just the next right thing.

Chances are, if you are a teacher, you are always looking ahead, trying to improve or implement change into your curriculum or classroom. The Teacher To-Do list is never done, so remind yourself that just being present each day for your students is more work than some people do in a week.

Give yourself the mentality that you are enough, even if you are not spending every living, breathing, waking moment thinking about your teaching. Showing up, smiling, caring, and being human in front of your students is the best consistency, the best system of trust and community you can create—whether your lesson plan was perfectly executed or not. You will make mistakes, but you will get through it. Keep a box of any kind notes, emails, or cards you receive from your students or colleagues to cheer yourself up in the toughest moments. Tomorrow is a new day, a blank slate for you and for them. Show up, try again, and know that what you do is unbelievably hard but undeniably meaningful.


‘Show Students How to Love’

Gretchen Bernabei taught grades 5-11 in Texas schools for 34 years. She is an ardent fan of the National Writing Project institutes throughout the country and has written 13 books to assist teachers of writing:

One year, much against my will, I took a John Milton class. By the last exam, I had claimed John Milton’s work as my new secret passion. My professor didn’t tell us how much he loved John Milton. He showed us how to untangle the verse, to notice the word play, to see both the sacred and the profane within the words. Milton became ours. The real secret of life? Finding ways to concretely share whatever material truly fascinates you.

One day I heard about Mike Stanley, a math teacher in a nearby hall. He had been writing on the board, talking through a problem, and as he wrote the number 57, he whirled around to face his students and exclaimed, “57! That’s my third favorite number!” Turning back around, he continued with the problem. He changed forever the way his students (and we, his colleagues) thought about numbers. The secret of life? Finding ways to deliver passion, even when it’s not a required step.

I watched my friend and teacher-next-door Dottie Hall between classes, pouring enthusiasm over students like the finest honey. “Mrs. Bernabei, look at these two girls right here. Are these not the sweetest smiles ever?” “Hello, beautiful child!” And her looks went everywhere. When the door closed and literature books opened, students felt nourished by affection. They received daily crash courses in unmuted love. The real secret of life? Finding ways to deliver love, even between the cracks.

Since we will never have enough time for students to learn everything on the “required” list, some of it must be left out. The best advice I’ve seen in action is this: Don’t just teach what you love. Show students how to love. What should you teach? The secrets of life.


Thanks to Keisha, Leah, Luiza, Jenny, Kulvarn, Sarah, and Gretchen 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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