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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

‘The Silence of Educators Is Dangerous’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 15, 2020 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

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...

Today’s contributors are 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.

I would suggest that one of the biggest dangers is getting seduced by being data-driven instead of being data-informed. Data can be, and has been, easily manipulated to promote—and disguise—policies that promote racism and other forms of oppression, so viewing it as just one small piece in a puzzle is essential for informed decisionmaking. For example, saying that suspensions are reduced for students of color could just indicate punishment has been replaced with another name.

The dangers of keeping silent

Marian Dingle begins her 20th year teaching elementary students, currently teaching 4th and 5th graders in Atlanta. Passionate about mathematics, she has served on her district’s mathematics advisory board and is a board member of Twitter Math Camp. She is a current Heinemann Fellow conducting action research in mathematics. Follow her at @DingleTeach:

One of the biggest dangers facing us right now is silence. In education, there are many buzzwords about effective pedagogy including real-world connection, critical thinking, and employing student voice. However, these are often reserved for contrived examples that are considered safe for the classroom. This safety is reinforced by the implied or stated requirement for educators to be “apolitical” and avoid controversial topics with students, families, and colleagues. Schools pass on the value of silence to their teachers and students.

I believe that the purpose of education is to empower students with tools to improve the world. For example, in mathematics, I encourage students to ask questions, look for patterns, and dialogue with peers about strategies used. These are a few of the mathematical practice standards, but they can and should be extended in other contexts. Why can’t students ask questions about current events? How do we respond when they see patterns of inequity? Have we taught them how to have respectful discourse while they disagree? Mathematics itself, as well as any other discipline, can be used to identify inequity and to design solutions. We don’t have to create real-world problems for our students to solve. Plenty already exist.

However, the silence of educators in their school settings is also dangerous. Do we ask questions when we see patterns of marginalized groups of students overrepresented in special education, yet underrepresented in gifted and enrichment programs? Are we noticing that not all parents feel welcome at school? Are we willing to have those difficult discussions with colleagues—the very ones we require in our own classrooms? We cannot expect our students to be courageous enough to take the risks that we are not willing to take ourselves. We must model the behavior we want our students to emulate.

As a mother of two, and a teacher of hundreds, I have come to understand that teaching itself is a political act. We all bring our identities, cultures, and history to our workplace. To hide them in a quest for a classroom free of conflict, yet full of compliance, serves no one and, in fact, causes harm to us all. We are not truly educating students if we shy away from the truth of what they face. I am not suggesting that we impose our own views on our students. However, we must provide them with information and a framework from which to analyze and critique their world.

The danger of our silence

Meg Riordan Ph.D., is the chief learning officer at the Possible Project, an education nonprofit organization that partners with youths in Cambridge, Mass., and Boston to develop entrepreneurial mindsets/skills and support students’ in accessing pathways to increase economic mobility. She is the co-author of Going to scale with new school designs: Reinventing high school (Teachers College Press, 2009) and numerous articles. Meg taught English/ESL at middle school, high school, and college levels, and in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan (1995-97):

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

The word “danger” is based on the Latin dominus, meaning “lord,” or “jurisdiction or power.” During the Middle English period of 1150 to 1500, it came to mean the “power to harm.”

Why begin an education blog with the etymology or origin story of “danger?”

Because danger is not only external—each one of us holds the power to harm. We also have the power to effect change, speak truth to power, and act with moral courage in the face of injustice.

There’s no shortage of danger facing today’s public education system: Teachers and students are victims of school shootings; students of color in particular incur the lasting harm of systemic inequity and often ineffective teaching—a veritable pedagogy of poverty; and students struggle with the damage that social media can inflict not only on their reputations but their lives. Schools also face dangers of teacher shortages and attrition, with many new teachers leaving the classroom after five years. And let’s not forget the danger that policies and values espoused by the current administration have on our vulnerable immigrant and transgender learners.

These dangers are real and have the power to stir fear, widen opportunity gaps, and divide us.

But beneath those dangers, I see a more critical internal one: silence. The danger of doing nothing—saying nothing—in the face of injustices that in our hearts and minds we know are unethical. We live in a world where we see the consequences of silence take shape as oppression, discrimination, and violence. As Paulo Freire reminds us: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

What does it take, then, to speak out, act boldly, and cultivate moral courage in the face of oppressive systems? What does it take for schools, teachers, and students to shatter the silence that threatens to immobilize us with a residue of fear? Let’s look to illustrations of the courageous ways schools, teachers, and students make their voices heard:

Schools: Give teachers time to design curriculum that connects students to community

School leaders recognize that inequity can be an engine for activism, igniting teachers’ and students’ innate awareness of unfairness and justice. School leaders can use that understanding to support a vision for deeper learning, where teachers engage learners in relevant and authentic projects that connect to their local communities, build knowledge, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills with purposeful impact.

For instance, when school leaders Pat Finley and Damon McCord launched Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in partnership with NYC Outward Bound Schools and EL Education, they committed to project-based curriculum designed by teachers that engaged learners in real-world issues. Crafting that kind of rich curriculum demands time. Finley indicates:

Since opening in 2008, we created a culture where everyone understands that tests aren’t the only reason that kids are in school. We want teachers to design curriculum that connects to community, and dialogue with students to develop ideas about standing up for something and making change in the world. As a leader, I need to make structures and time where teachers can meet and design relevant experiences, so kids can engage with elected officials or do research at the farmers’ market. Our students arrive at school and it’s not just a notebook and pencil that are important, but how our school can be a place to make sense of the world, become an activist, or make change.

When leaders prioritize internal school structures for teachers’ ideas and voices, school becomes a powerful space to design and enact engaging learning that realizes teachers and students as agents of change.

Teachers: Lead with love and explore issues where students’ voices are needed

In the recent documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” about the life and work of Mr. Rogers, famous for his children’s television program, Rogers said: “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all relationships...” We also know that science suggests that people only think deeply about things they care about. When teachers leverage this powerful combination of leading with love and exploring issues that are meaningful to learners, transformational outcomes are possible.

This past year, Open World Learning Community teacher Tom Totushek invited his 8th graders to select an issue of importance to them and engage local elected officials in lobbying for critical supports to address topics such as sex-trafficking, immigration, and rights for transgender youths. He explains:

As a cisgender white man, it’s challenging for me to invite students to choose the topics they’re passionate about and that I might not have deep knowledge around or always feel comfortable discussing. But it’s important to kids, and it’s authentic learning. I’m preparing them to be real engagers in the civic process. ... In today’s world you can’t wait for the right moment to build advocacy—we need to develop those skills all the time. Plus, they know I care about them and value them as people. I lead with that and build trust with students.

As Tom suggests, inviting students to select meaningful issues might make a teacher feel uncomfortable, even vulnerable: Am I equipped to help them explore a topic that’s outside of my expertise? How do I engage in courageous conversations about challenging issues? What biases do I bring to the discussion?

Simply, as educators, we must step bravely into such spaces. Letting students know their voices are needed and engaging them in issues that attract their sense of justice can build not only skills, but moral courage and activism as well. Letting students know we care about them sets a foundation for safe--and brave--learning.

Students: Be agents for change. Speak up. You are more powerful than you imagine.

As recent events illustrate, student voice can be a potent lever for change. Specifically, following the February 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., one student stated, " This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion. It is based on passion and it is based on pain. Our biggest flaws—our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out ... these are our strengths.”

Our students are fierce, astute, and have a keen sense of justice. As educators, we need to listen and learn from these voices, and help students unleash their power to create change for good. An example of student voice making a positive impact includes EL Education’s Better World Day, where learners across the country demonstrated their power to advocate for change and make a difference in the world. One student, Ahlenne Abreu, explained of her Better World Day experience: “We succeeded in relaying the message about the importance of gender equity for all, and people actually listened to us. Raising my voice to speak truth to power is one of the most meaningful things I have ever done.”

When students wield the force of their emotions and speak truth to power, they can lead the way in challenging pressing issues of injustice.

The external dangers facing education are real. But so is the internal danger we are to ourselves and others when we are silent and complicit. Luckily, we have a choice: Schools can make time for teachers to design experiences that connect learners with communities; teachers can invite students to explore relevant and critical issues; and students can exert the power of their voices. Through brave words and actions, we can collectively confront the danger of silence facing our world today.

Creating excuses for not speaking out

Deana Simpson began as a 1st, then 4th, grade teacher. She then became an ELA instructional coaching and is now director of learning at Monroe Center Elementary School:

I finished a call earlier this past spring with a company that is helping us learn how to use video as a way to reflect on our practice in education. Perfect for education and quite frankly for anyone who wants to see what they can do to improve and think deeply about their practice. Athletes do this all of the time with no question. They do it because it makes sense. Play the game, watch the video, see what you can improve, practice, and then make the change. It seems like a simple process that has led many sports teams to championships and further. In education we want our students to make it all the way to the championships in life. The biggest dangers we must overcome in education in order to help our students make it to the championship, as I see it, go hand in hand. The dangers I’m referring to are the lack of collective teacher efficacy and, sadly, the acceptance of average culture in our schools (Donohoo, 2017; Casas, 2017).

I recently read a blog post from Jeffrey Zoul that spoke to being reflective in culture throughout the athletic industry being not so different from that of education (2018). If we think about the game as the piece that determines who wins and loses and the timeouts being the piece that gets the team through those games strategically, then why can’t we think it’s possible to approach collective teacher efficacy and designing an excellent school culture through training for the small and numerous timeouts within education? Perhaps, the timeouts are even more critical in education. It’s my opinion that those small moments are the toughest to practice and maybe, if truth be told, the hardest to perfect.

Full disclosure; I’m not necessarily an athletic person; I mean I get the game (most of the time), I understand what being competitive is all about (because even though I say I’m not, I’m the worst kind of competitor, I don’t admit I am one), and I enjoy going to a game and getting to play when I can (only with my son, and a Harlem Wizards game once, but that was just for the kids—it’s always easier when it’s for the kids). Building teams, family, working hard to create an excellent culture, and nurturing growth in a way that some may never have experienced otherwise is what it’s all about for me. As a former teacher, instructional coach, and more recently a director of learning/principal, I have seen education in various ways and through the lenses of many eyes during both the game and timeouts alike. Trust me when I tell you, I’ve seen some and am embarrassed to say have even been a part of some pretty defective timeouts—not proud moments but moments impactful enough to learn and know that it’s the worst way to improve one’s self, one’s character, and certainly does nothing for student achievement.

As educators, we find ourselves in staff meetings, team meetings, leadership meetings, and other committee meetings throughout the already busy educational week, not to mention the most important part of the week helping children learn and grow. I’ve seen, as I believe most of us have, where at times those numerous meetings are met with a deafening silence. There are a number of reasons this happens, and we can all make assumptions about why, but all too often, when the meeting breaks and we move back to the classrooms or the hallways and you hear that silence break into the small conversations, the whispers behind closed doors, texts sharing comments, and email chats back and forth criticizing or asking everyone questions with the exception of the one person that could actually answer the questions. Those conversations, those timeouts make it about us and not the students, and that’s dangerous. Then, we wonder why negativity flourishes and culture is average at best?

What’s shocking is that we know this exists, yet the behavior is still blatantly ignored. We don’t address the conversation or the individuals. Unfortunately, it’s those moments, those crucial timeouts that we never train for but are critical to work through in order for us to get better at serving students and supporting each other in what we do. We throw this great opportunity away like a piece of garbage when we could just call out the behavior, get messy, and get to the root of the issue. FYI, this isn’t just teachers, it’s all of us, teachers, staff, administration ... all of us in education. Be honest with yourself; over the past few years, how many times have you walked away from a meeting wishing you’d said something, irritated with a moment during the meeting, disagreed with a situation or person, or know a different reality of what’s being projected and just sat there and said absolutely nothing? It’s happened everywhere, and we all know it, and then to make matters worse, we turn around and share that same irritation with a smaller group or an individual but then truly did nothing more than just create bigger barriers to overcome. If I’m honest with myself, and at this point there would be no reason not to, I’ve had opportunities lost by my not having the guts and grit to say just say what I was thinking out loud. This behavior builds walls, creates exhaustion, and soon you’ve completely forgotten why you’re here.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that being this vulnerable and open is easy, but with practice and determination, it will be. I should also clarify that being honest and saying what you think out loud never means we have to be rude or do it at someone’s expense, but we have to have the hard conversations and use them to grow stronger and better. We create excuses for why we don’t speak out trying to convince ourselves that in doing so we did it for the good of the organization, where in fact we didn’t speak up or contribute to protect ourselves. When I’ve done it, I’m making it about me and not the students; I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Being safe within our four walls hasn’t proven to do anyone any favors yet, certainly not the students. These small, after the fact conversations, or timeouts as I refer to them, are what we need to train for; it’s too dangerous not to. These hidden conversations are the same conversations that if shared collectively could help us improve our game. I’ve often thought that perhaps people wouldn’t be so frustrated with the number of meetings we have in education if in fact the meetings involved those conversations because then maybe we’d get somewhere. With that in mind, this is our opportunity to design and improve culture while building collective efficacy at the same time.

If we train for these timeouts more, be brave, be vulnerable, ask the important questions, share the comments we’re really thinking both good and bad, and one by one put yourself out there, our timeouts will improve our practice together as a team. It doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, it doesn’t mean people will agree with you, but until we’re willing to train for the timeouts, we will never get better. Once we start having those real conversations and asking those questions, we’ll find out that together we will grow, believe more in our own value, and then begin believing in each other and our ability to help students succeed together. It’s in that persistence we will find that we can create both excellent school cultures and begin creating collective teacher efficacy within our buildings to improve student achievement (Donohoo, 2017).

Everything we do, or perhaps in this case, don’t do affects student learning. The students are the ultimate investors in our team, and we can’t afford for our lack of training for the timeouts to sacrifice the win for them. This is our opportunity to huddle, look at our practice from a different angle, and get our heads back in the game. Use your timeouts strategically for the good of the game, practice them, work through them, and grow from them because our students can’t afford our distractions from the game.

Casas, J. (2017). Culturize: Every student, every day, whatever it takes. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Incorporated.

Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective efficacy: How educators beliefs impact student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Zoul, Jeff. “Teach. Learn. Lead. Repeat.” We Create the Culture and The Culture Creates Us, 7 Apr. 2018, .

We ask too much of schools

Peter DeWitt is a former K-5 teacher who is now a Visible Learning trainer, facilitating workshops with schools both nationally and internationally. He is the author of works including School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? (ASCD Arias) and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press, 2018). He also writes a blog on Education Week.

There are many dangers facing schools: gun violence, natural disasters, poverty. All considered, however, one danger facing schools that is often overlooked is that we ask too much of them— applying a great deal of pressure to solve all of our world problems. I understand that that may sound a bit overly dramatic, but it is the reality for our educational system.

We expect schools to be a place for academic and social-emotional learning. At surface level, this expectation assumes schools should be required to undertake these issues as a whole; the reality is that each of these has multiple levels of complexity.

Academic learning involves looking at strategies like learning intentions and success criteria, teacher-student relationships, teacher credibility and different instructional strategies in the classroom, all of which has been deeply researched by John Hattie. Teachers and leaders often try to undertake the enormous challenge of trying to do all of these at once, and we know that doing just one of these, although they have a powerful impact, takes a great deal of time and effort.

When it comes to looking at social-emotional learning, we understand that this is also a very complex issue that is sometimes viewed as controversial. When I write about social-emotional learning in schools for the Finding Common Ground blog (Education Week) I get a great deal of pushback from naysayers who argue that there is no place for social-emotional learning in schools. This, of course, is flawed thinking, because we have students who come from abusive homes, experience trauma, and do not have the skills to engage academically because they suffer social-emotionally.

On top of everything that we ask of schools, they also have become a place where leaders, teachers, instructional support staff, and students must do active-shooter drills because we have experienced so many school shootings and massacres in the last two decades. This, of course, impacts the school climate because we have schools that have metal detectors when students arrive for school every morning, and many schools are on perpetual lockouts requiring parents to be buzzed in to school every day they want to visit.

And if that is not hard enough, many schools are doing it on shoe-string budgets because of devastating cuts at the same time there are state and federal mandates they must comply with, and often, do not have the staff to do the work.

While we ask them to do it all with a smile, spending their own money on their own classrooms, teachers too often have to hear negative, unthankful rhetoric tied to how they are doing their jobs. And yet, we still have amazing leaders, teachers, and support staff who enter into their schools every day, striving to make a difference, We should thank them for that every single day.

Thanks to Marian, Meg, Deana, and Peter 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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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways to Begin the School Year

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Mistakes in Education

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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