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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

Who’s the Teacher? 14 Lessons Students Taught Their Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 09, 2021 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a five-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

Some people make fun of teachers who say they learn a lot from their students (see The Onion’s Teacher Who Learns More From Her Students Than She Teaches Them Fired).

I believe there is no question that we educators teach a lot more curriculum content than we learn from students.

On the other hand, though, I also believe that I learn an incredible amount from my students about how to teach, about different cultures, and about the challenges many communities face in our country (and how to respond to them)—along with many other lessons.

As professor and researcher Carol Dweck said in ASCD Educational Leadership:

I really was impressed when I heard a teacher say, ‘Every student has something to teach me.’ It’s an important reminder: Every student can help you become a better teacher.

Today, Kyle Lawrence, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Blanca Huertas, and Denise Fawcett Facey share their experiences.

‘Busy Is Not a Badge of Honor’

Kyle Lawrence is a 6th grade social studies teacher and team leader at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tenn.:

In 13 years of teaching everything from kindergarten PE to high school math, I have learned many lessons from my students who come into my room to learn lessons from me. I have taught all-girl classes, 20 kindergartners in PE, and 2 high schoolers with an online program. Although these experiences were all vastly different in the classroom, I found some consistent lessons among all these groups that I would like to share.

1. Be observant. My students are always noticing random things. They notice when I am using a different coffee mug from normal, when my shoes are untied, and when I may be a little down. This has helped me learn to watch out for the little things from my students. Yes, I need to watch for informal assessments and checking for understanding. But it is also important to notice when a student feels as though they are not seen or heard.

It has allowed me to be observant to the needs of my students outside of the classroom and learn about what it is that makes those students tick. I have discussed NASCAR, musical theater, and countless numbers of video games or live-action role-playing games, although those are not my hobbies. It came from noticing that those students, with those interests, needed someone to talk to and be excited about their interests. This all stemmed from being observant.

2. Laugh. My students have taught me how important it is to laugh every day and enjoy life. Many of them come in carefree, get giggling about anything and everything. As teachers, our natural inclination is to stop it immediately! Obviously, we need to if it is at the expense of another student. However, laughter brings joy to every situation.

Learning should be a joyful experience. This year for the hybrid learning model, I put on my cheesehead and say a cheesy dad joke to every block before every class. This has very little to do with test scores or rigor, but it has to do with creating a joyful and challenging learning environment. If the students can start out joyful, I can only hope to maintain that through my lessons.

3. Busy is not a badge of honor. Many times, I listen to my students talk about their busy after-school schedules. Soccer practices, band practices, piano recitals, tutoring sessions, test-practice sessions, and many other things take up their free time after school. These are all amazing things and are integral to the growth of the whole child. However, sometimes our students wear their busy-ness as a badge of honor. I have learned that burnout becomes very real for students if a true love and passion was never developed.

The same goes for teaching. If we boast about how busy we are, how we focus and think about work all the time, burnout becomes very real to teachers. I have intentionally shut things down and said no to certain extracurricular activities to maintain my joy and passion.

4. Asking questions is empowering. My students love to ask questions about social studies. They ask me about governmental decisions, historical events, and my home life. I love answering these questions, but I also love asking THEM the same questions in return. I love when they can hear me wonder what their opinion is on things and then challenge them to back it up with facts or data. This creates a positive back and forth between us.

5. Unconditional love. I have taught students two days after my mother passed away, after receiving difficult news about my own child, and when I have had to tell them I was leaving the school after that year. I was not my best during this time, and the students loved me and still showed up, every day, ready to learn. I have learned that no matter what we go through, our students need to be our WHY. They often love us unconditionally; they deserve the same.

In my case, frequently, the students truly do become the teacher.


They Have to ‘Feel Your Excitement’

Irina McGrath, Ph.D., is an assistant principal at Newcomer Academy in the Jefferson County public schools, in Louisville, Ky. She is a co-creator of the ELL2.0 Google site and enjoys creating and sharing resources to support English-learners and teachers of ELs. Irina is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville & Indiana University Southeast adjunct professor:

When I look back at my teaching career, I have to admit that some of the most valuable lessons I have learned came from my English-learners.

Lesson 1

If you are not excited about what you are teaching, it will be hard if not impossible for students to get excited about it. They have to see and feel your excitement in order to be affected by it positively.

This quote has guided me through my time as a teacher, and I have made it a point to always make sure that I leave my negative emotions at the door and bring positive energy as I enter my classroom. Interestingly, research has shown that emotions are incredibly contagious—positive and negative emotions can be easily passed from one person to another often without people even realizing it. Apparently, during conversation, humans tend to mimic facial expressions and body language of one another. They also tend to match the word choices of those they’re conversing with, thus transmitting emotions through connotation to others. Knowing this and observing it in my students has been crucial for me as a teacher.

If a student comes to class upset, the best thing I can do is stay focused and emit positivity and excitement in the lesson, and in the end, I do see a noticeable difference from when they entered the room to when they exited.

Lesson 2

If you want to know what’s working in a lesson and what’s not, ask your students.

Students may not always know what is helping them learn and what’s hindering their progress, but they can share their experiences and thus help you understand if classroom work is engaging and meets their diverse needs. Several years ago, I helped create stations in a social studies classroom at Newcomer Academy. The work at each of the five stations was personalized for different language proficiencies and focused on four language domains: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The stations seemed to work well except for one. When I asked the students to show me which station number was not working for them, unanimously, all 24 students raised two fingers up, letting me know that it was station number 2. Not only were they able to point out the station, but they also helped me figure out how to make it better.

Lesson 3

If you want students to learn and retain information, you have to teach them how to do it.

It used to puzzle me how my English-learners would learn new content and perform well on the end of unit assessment, then a few months later, that very content would be erased from their memory as if it had never been covered. “I honestly don’t remember, Miss,” they would tell me, and I couldn’t understand how it was possible until I learned about “the forgetting curve.”

The forgetting curve is a mathematical formula created by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, back in 1885 (and it also been replicated more recently). It demonstrates the rate at which humans forget information over time. According to memory research, humans forget approximately 46 percent of information after just one day. They forget 65 percent of information after seven days and 82 percent after 21 days. Therefore, I started to incorporate review lessons and taught my English-learners strategies to help them remember. With these changes, my students’ abilities to retain and recall information increased tremendously.


‘Never Giving Up’

Blanca Huertas is an ESL and ELA teacher from Dickinson, Texas:

In reflecting on what I have learned throughout the years from my students, I need to contemplate what has made the most impact on my life and the climate and culture of my classroom. I believe that this is a question that many educators should analyze and consider because the bases of our classes reflect on what we can learn from our students and how we can implement each piece of that knowledge into our lessons and classroom culture.

When I first started as an educator, I thought I had it all together with every learning and teaching theory. However, I quickly came to understand that, obviously that was all great, but there was a lot that I could learn from my students that could help make my teaching be more impactful. Not only could my lessons be more engaging, but my students could make a mark on my life.

As I think about what major lessons I have learned from my students, I narrowed them down to three important lessons:

  • The importance of being real with them: What I have realized throughout my experience as a teacher is that students, especially teenagers, like honesty and transparency. One of the lessons they have taught me is that I should be honest and transparent with them. When I am honest and transparent with my students, they see the real me. I become a real person to them and I can connect with them. This helps create a beautiful culture and climate in the classroom that permits wonderful engagement. Students start to open in classroom discussions, and I start to learn who they are.
  • Never giving up: I have serviced for the past six years a newcomer population that speak little to no English. These wonderful students work so hard each day to give their best to be successful in every one of the classes, regardless of not knowing English. Here in Texas, in junior high, you do not have bilingual classes. Being in seven classes for seven hours a day and literally not understanding half of what is being spoken, yet they still work with all their might. That shows great inner strength and willpower. I admire each one of these students that I have serviced during the past six years. They have taught me what never giving up truly is all about. We have seen the fruit of their efforts at the end of the year. With just knowing the amount of English that they know, their efforts and their drive have given them the reward to pass state tests.
  • Facing life’s challenges: As I mentioned before, I have worked for the past six years with students that come from other countries. During this time, they have shared their immigration stories and the situations they have gone through in their countries. I admire each one of my students. Many of my young girls have crossed the border without an adult at 12 or 13 years of age. They have persevered and made it to America regardless of the obstacles that have come their way. Others have lived through kidnapping experiences, being lost in the desert, and being locked in “dog cages” by immigration, but in all of this, they have faced each challenge head-on. Oh, how I admire the strength and the valor of each one of these students. Then they come to a country to face the daily challenge of learning in a different language and the cultural shock of a totally different way of living. They continue to face it regardless of the difficulties because they know that these struggles are to acquire a better life.

Throughout my years, my students have helped me perfect my craft by teaching me life lessons that have made me humble and opened my eyes to see life in a different perspective. Students are the basis of my teaching. They are the heart of each lesson. Each one of them brings life into my classroom. When I learn from them, I let them help me help others like them, and together we can make a bigger impact in this world one student at a time.


‘The Value Of Relationships’

Denise Fawcett Facey was a classroom teacher for more than two decades and now writes on education issues. Among her books, Can I Be in Your Class offers tips and techniques for making learning more responsive, relevant, and engaging for the whole child, not just the student:

Although teachers are ostensibly the ones who impart knowledge and wisdom, there’s something to be said for the many intangibles that students have taught me over the years. Having nothing to do with content and everything to do with character, what I’ve learned from my students is all about humanity—its resilience, its transcendence of obstacles, its ability to thrive when given the chance and nurturance, despite all odds. While I’ve taught in a variety of settings, it was my students for whom life was a daily struggle who ultimately taught me all this and so much more.

Resilience may well have been their most salient characteristic and certainly one I greatly admired. Taking in stride the life difficulties they encountered on a regular basis, my students saw those challenges not as problems but as merely part of life. Indeed, the “what ifs” of life were a luxury largely unavailable to them, as they had genuine issues to face. From the student who took care to save extra sandwiches and cookies at the school Christmas party to tide himself over during the long holiday break to the one who had been the primary caretaker for his dying father and opted to forgo his own graduation ceremony in favor of attending his father’s funeral, they handled whatever came their way with resilience, not seeing the heroism in doing so but rather viewing circumstances as simply facing life. And always, they came to class prepared to work, focused on what needed to be done at that moment. The dignity that undergirded their resilience spoke volumes, and I heard the unspoken words of the lessons, gently nudging me to view life with less angst and more grace.

Then there were those for whom obstacles were merely demands to be met. A case in point was the student who served as interpreter for his parents, both of whom were deaf. Providing a conduit to the hearing world, he accompanied them to every venue, from doctors’ appointments to teachers’ meetings, among others. At my request, he even taught me sign language. Similarly, for my many international students, interpreting both language and culture was simply what an Americanized child did for immigrant parents, enabling their parents to navigate a world unknown to them. Yet this required my students to learn and convey terminologies and nuances beyond their own realm of daily interaction. Nonetheless, they readily accepted these responsibilities, and I learned the beauty of selflessness.

Equally notable were their big hearts. Even a casual observer would note that although my students were not rich in material possessions, their generosity of spirit and even of their monetary means was vast. Whether it was the students who gave up attendance at graduation parties one year to spend time comforting the student who had lost his dad or the student who informed me that she couldn’t buy me a Christmas present—a gift I never expected—because she could only afford one, which she was giving to a teacher who had recently miscarried and “needed a gift,” their deep empathy for others and willingness to share from the abundance of their hearts was beyond heartwarming. Demonstrating that wealth can be defined in many ways, my students taught me to define it with love.

Ultimately, my students taught me enduring lessons about resilience, responsibility, and empathy. Most importantly, they reaffirmed my belief in the value of relationships, teaching me the power of those relationships to impact lives in everlasting ways. The fact that several of them have not only maintained ties with one another but also transcended all that they faced to become doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and members of other professions is a tribute to all those qualities they evidenced. That I know about it underscores the relationships between my students and me, as many of them have sought me out over the years, via email and Facebook, wanting to pay homage to the past and to highlight the present. Knowing that most of them are now also parents, transmitting those same values to another generation—perhaps with some material wealth they had lacked themselves—is another lesson for me on what is most important in life.


Thanks to Kyle, Irena, Blanca, and Denise 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.

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