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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

‘Who Is Our Customer?’ and Other Questions Teachers Are Asking

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 19, 2023 10 min read
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Though we teachers don’t have a lot of time for reflection, we all do at least some thinking about what’s happening in our schools.

In this multipart series, educators will share some key questions they “ponder” and what potential answers there might be to them.

Here’s a podcast featuring today’s contributors.

‘Responsive Curriculum’

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Wisconsin. He is also the author of Leading LIke a C.O.A.C.H.: Five Strategies for Supporting Teaching and Learning (Corwin, 2022):

One question that I come back to often (and I still don’t have a clear answer to) is:

How do we create a consistent curriculum while also supporting responsive instruction?

In fact, this might be the question a school leader regularly ponders.

I think the reason we don’t have a good answer for it is because there isn’t a clean response to it. As administrators, we are caught between two competing agendas:

  • Ensure all students have access to challenging and engaging instruction.
  • Respect all teachers as professionals and trust in their ability to teach their students well.

Ultimately, we have to make a decision; that should come down to the first agenda.

And yet we are also challenged by so many factors that influence teachers’ day-to-day decisions:

  • Lack of time to adequately prepare for effective instruction.
  • Lack of resources to offer a curriculum worth learning.
  • Lack of respect from families and community members regarding teachers’ efforts.
  • Lack of value assigned to the time, resources, and respect for what teachers need to do this work well.

As school leaders, it can feel like we are in a no-win situation.

What can we do?

First, I believe it is important to publicly acknowledge these constraints teachers experience regularly. It helps them feel acknowledged while also pointing out the fact that, as leaders, we often have little influence in these situations. We can build trust by recognizing reality. From this shared understanding, we are better able to move forward in developing a curriculum that better works for all students.

Second, we can find common ground in moving forward collectively toward a more challenging and relevant curriculum by identifying that next step toward success. Too often, we as leaders set lofty goals without articulating the indicators that denote we are on the right path. For example, if we want all of our students to be engaged readers, how will we know our work is initially guiding them toward that goal? It’s important that we find agreement on what success looks like every step of the way.

Third, teachers need to feel affirmed about the practices they are already doing well. It might seem obvious to you, such as the teacher who regularly facilitates deep dialogue with their students around important social studies topics. But to the teacher, they need to know from you as the instructional leader a) what they are doing well, and b) how their practice is making an impact on student learning. When you can clearly demonstrate a through-line of action to impact, it will happen more frequently.

Finally, there are opportunities for teacher feedback that fortify their practice instead of depleting their confidence. I am not against constructive criticism. But I have also, through my own experience, shared interpretations about instruction that could have been communicated in a way that would have led to improvement instead of resentment. These situations are unique, and I encourage leaders to proceed with both caution and compassion.

Do these four recommendations read as a script?

I hope not. It would be an antithesis to the original question I continue to ponder. What I offer instead are four way points to guide your own school’s journey to excellence.

My only hope is that you have more questions than answers, as that will tell you that the journey is ongoing, which is the only solution for an organization committed to continuous learning.

howdowecreate

Classroom ‘Customers’

July Hill-Wilkinson is a veteran classroom teacher, adjunct professor, and former administrator. She currently works as an instructional coach and curriculum leader in Southern California high schools:

My favorite lingering question in education is “who is our customer’? At Ford, the customer is a car buyer. At Burger King, the customer is a diner who wants to have it their way, and at Verizon, the customer wants the best cell coverage. I spend an inordinate amount of time in my classroom, and planning for my classroom, and yet I don’t know who the customer is when it comes to my classroom.

Some would say “the customer is our student, of course!” Right? Um, sort of. They are the ones in front of me, but they are a captive audience. More than a few would be quick to point out that the things we do are not their way, and they definitely don’t feel like they are always right—or even valued. Maybe they hold more of the “participant” title, or maybe even “product” as opposed to “customer.” The current decisions and pushes would have many believe that the college system is the customer, and I spend my days preparing the students as a “product” for them to select. Can’t say I like that answer. OK, is it the parents? Have I been hired to serve parents by having their kiddos in my room for six hours a day to teach them the ways of the world? COVID brought that question into sharp relief, but I am not sure we all agreed on the answer. Hmm, still not sure. Is it the school itself? The district? Country? … Who is our customer?

We don’t know. And when you do not know who the customer is, it is VERY difficult to make meaningful improvements.

So far, the best answer I have been able to ascertain when asking this question of myself and others is that “the student’s future self” is my customer. I try to plan and create situations that will serve my students five to 10 years down the road. I know what that customer needs: critical-thinking skills, communication skills, and the ability to get along with other humans (along with some content and state standards). If THAT is my customer, I can make day-to-day decisions based on those needs. I am not 100 percent sure that all in education believe that line of thought, however. Sometimes, teachers are guided toward a different customer with different needs.

Whatever the answer is, the sooner we can figure it out, the sooner we can make the meaningful changes that education so desperately requires. The pendulum swings, the pandemic keeps interrupting, and the people keep demanding more of teachers. If the original goal was to have informed, educated citizens, then the country—democracy—is the customer. We just need to agree on how to best serve it.

whoisour

‘Achievement/Opportunity Gap’

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 (annstiltner.com/blog). Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

A question related to education that I often ponder is the achievement/opportunity gap. Why do different groups of students respond to the same instruction with different learning outcomes, and how can we ensure that all students experience high levels of achievement?

It is a question that schools and communities have grappled with for generations. None of the interventions we have tried seems to have helped. Though I would say that, as a society, we have not been willing to commit large amounts of time and resources to fixing it. It appears to me to make sense that if it has taken generations for a situation to develop, it will take at least a generation to correct it.

We are a nation based on immediate results and easy answers. We also enjoy finding blame rather than committing resources and energy to solving problems. We want guarantees and an easy, simple answer. Our society doesn’t like things that are complex and not a sure bet. The achievement/opportunity gap is nothing if not a complex problem with no guaranteed solutions. All these reasons explain WHY the achievement/opportunity gap has not improved, but it does not answer the question HOW to shrink the achievement/opportunity gap. That involves looking at the reasons why all groups of students do not reach the same levels of success.

Like most issues in schools, the achievement/opportunity gap goes beyond the school walls. Schools, as social institutions, reflect the society in which they are based. We can’t address the achievement/opportunity gap without addressing the gaps in our ability as a society and economy to meet the basic needs of all groups. These are the needs for safety, affordable housing, medical care, food, and other essentials. The need not to experience trauma and the need for healthy development should be a priority for all children before they reach school age.

Our communities need to be dedicated to investing money, time, and political capital to address these horrible inequities in our communities. We need to be aware of the political squabbles and criticisms that some groups use to divert our attention from trying new approaches and solutions to the addressing this achievement/opportunity gap. Many groups who are currently advantaged would prefer to do nothing rather than take a risk and experiment to improve our society for all people. My real fear is that without addressing these inequities, they will fester and grow until they impact our country in ways we can no longer ignore. Sadly, all these reasons seem to ensure we are doomed to continue having an achievement/opportunity gap in our schools unless radical change occurs.

theachievement

This post is the first in a multipart series.

The question of the week is:

What questions related to education do you periodically “ponder” and don’t feel like you—or others you are familiar with—have a good answer for? Do you have ideas for what would be required to get those answers?

Thanks to Matt, July, and Ann 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.

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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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

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.

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