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Response: Challenging Moments in Teaching

(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What was the most difficult moment of your teaching career and what did you learn from it?

In Part One,  Lorena Germán, Tom Rademacher, Diana Laufenberg, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, and Jeff Bradbury shared their stories. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Lorena and Tome on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, N. Chaunte Garrett, Laura Robb, Jim Bentley, N. Chaunte Garrett, Jennifer Orr, and Jonathan Eckert contributed commentaries about their most difficult teaching experiences.

Today's guests are Megan Allen, Jenny Grant Rankin, Linda L. Lyman, and Wendi Pillars, along with stories from readers.

Response From Megan Allen

Megan Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher, the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year, and the Director of the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership at Mount Holyoke College. A self-proclaimed education nerd, you can chat with her on Twitter at @redhdteacher or visit her Ed Week blog, An Edugeek's Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy:

Leaving the public education classroom was one of the most difficult moments of my teaching career.

I have left my fourth and fifth grade classroom a few times, once as an Educator in Residence at the University of Central Florida and then for a year as the Florida Teacher of the Year, but I had always been on leave. I always had the option to come back home to the place and little people that I love. But when I was looking for jobs as I planned my move across states to Massachusetts, I was having a hard time finding a teaching job. I was all over the state job application database, looking for any job that would put me in front of students. But I hit a certification speed bump, and would have only a temporary teaching license for a year until I took a test to get my teaching license (as a veteran teacher and a NBCT-I thought this was a little bogus).

So I decided to look outside of public education. And I found a job opening in higher education. I applied, interviewed, and decided to take the plunge. And I left the classroom.

I've struggled over the past few years with the word "teacher" and whether or not it applies to me anymore. I've struggled with leaving the classroom, or as I have told myself, changing my definition of what a classroom is and can be. And I've felt immense guilt (right or wrong) over leaving the public education classroom.

But I've landed on one thing-something that keeps me grounded firmly in public education. There are many generations of impact. And room for us all.

There are so many important roles that impact our students, all helping support the most important role of all-the teacher. But teachers can't do their jobs if they don't have amazing building leadership within the school. And school buildings can't function properly without supportive districts, district leadership, and adequate resources. And the generations of impact keeps going. We need all the players-from the classroom to the non-profits to institutions of higher education and policy makers-doing their job to the best of their ability. There are so many generations of impact that rally around and support every child, and each one is of great importance.

So one of the most difficult things I have done in my career is leave the public education classroom. But one of the most important things I have done is let go of the guilt while still embracing the identity and role of teacher, realizing that each role we play is vital to the success of our children.

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Response From Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin is the author of First Aid to Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. This award-winning educator teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge after a K-12 career as teacher, administrator, and chief education & research officer:

On a Monday morning we learned that one of our students - a 7th grader - would not be at school that day because she and her young siblings had been shot and killed by her father. The father designed the murder-suicide to punish the kids' mother for divorcing him. The young girl had not been enrolled in my class, but her death hit me more deeply than a punch in the stomach.

At the gang-infested, poverty-stricken junior high where I worked, I was regularly faced with parents on drugs, in jail, or otherwise absentee. I was regularly reminded of how crucial a presence we teachers play in these kids' lives. This shooting, however, drove that premise home in a way that has touched my practice ever since.

For many kids, we teachers are all they have. We are their one, big chance at seeing life through hopeful eyes, at believing in themselves, at knowing they are loved and worthy of love. Maya Angelou, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey are just a few examples of people who have credited teachers as having a profound impact on their lives. These people are known for being successful and changing others' lives, and they simply wouldn't have reached those markers without the involvement of a caring teacher. Countless more people feel the same way about a special teacher.

I realized that day in a way more poignant than before that I had to be that person for my kids in my class. We don't always know what things are like for our students at their homes, and (as with that Monday's tragedy) we can't turn back time to save a kid, but we have to be that "special teacher" so we can make a difference in every kid's life in some profound way.

It is because of teachers' life-changing role that I dedicated my latest book to four key teachers I had as a child: Hal Akins, Todd Huck, Joan Morrison, and Charles Schiller. These special teachers sure changed my life, and my hope is that I can do the same for every student whose life I touch. I can think of no other profession that has a more powerful influence on the world than teaching.

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Response From Linda L. Lyman

Linda L. Lyman is a professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations at Illinois State University.  Through her teaching and writing, she has explored and advocated leadership approaches that enhance learning, promote growth through dialogue, and advance social justice. Her fifth book, Brain Science for Principals: What School Leaders Need to Know (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), answers questions about leadership applications of the recent findings of educational neuroscience.

Looking back to 1964 and my first year of teaching English, I remember working in an innovative state-of-the-art school built with Ford Foundation money for modular scheduling and team teaching.  Located 15 miles from Boston, everything about Wayland High School was novel and stimulating.  For example, each subject area had its own building.  A room in the English building housed desks of all the English teachers, plus a secretary, telephone, and copier.  Whenever I was struggling a more experienced teacher was just a few feet away ready to help out.  I counted on that!  Small group rooms, regular classrooms, and a theater-style large lecture room supported a varied schedule for students.  In a typical week students had classes for each of their subjects 4 times, beginning with the lecture, moving to regular classrooms for two sessions, and finishing with a small group experience. The rotating fifth day was for independent work.  Having just earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard, I thrived in Wayland's creative caring atmosphere. 

The most difficult moments of my career came when I decided to leave Wayland at the end of that year and return to the Midwest.  I had not anticipated how it would feel to leave behind the exceptionality of Wayland High School for a conventional high school - where the students showed up every day at the same time and sat in rows.  Little time existed to meet or talk with other teachers.  My predominant experiences were isolation, frustration, and loss.  Deeply discouraged, I seriously considered breaking my contract.  But the Midwest felt familiar, and breaking a contract did not seem responsible.  I stayed for three years, married, had my first child and then quit, not ever intending to teach again.  My later-in-life decision to earn a doctorate and become a professor could not have been predicted.

Thinking about the blog question brought to mind the difficult period following my decision to leave the Harvard/Boston area, an educational mecca.   Nostalgic, I decided to google Wayland High School.  Imagine my surprise to read on the website that the school was planning its second annual TEDxYouth@Wayland, an event titled "Rising Strong" featuring student speakers and performers.  This further description of the event called up the Wayland I remembered:  "The main objective of the event is to curate an exceptional and inspirational experience for the audience and to move people intellectually and emotionally, ultimately connecting us to one other."  Those words could have described my goal last semester when I had 15 students in a principal preparation program class give TED Talks for their final projects.  The talks featured their ideas worth spreading about a whole variety of deeply meaningful topics related to learning and the brain.  Such synchronicity!  I'd kept up with Wayland after all.

In retrospect, I understand that after experiencing Wayland High School I could not have just gone home again.  I have continued to seek innovation, including collaboration with graduate students to write "Brain Science for Principals: What School Leaders Need to Know" (2016).  Understanding how the brain learns is required for a principal's leadership to make a practical difference for learners, whatever their ages.  Conventional school structures then and now are not typically designed for learning.  What I have learned from reflection on what seemed a bad career decision is that a professional path is not made by one decision, but rather the path emerges from many decisions.  I am reminded that I was and still am attracted to and energized by schools featuring innovation, collaboration, and caring.  My career decisions over the years have built new pathways in my brain, taken me places I could not have predicted.  I have managed to "rise strong."

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Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars, NBCT, has been teaching students with English as a second/foreign language needs in grades K-12, both stateside and overseas, for 21 years. She has also taught Algebra, History, vocational classes, and Health and PE. She is the author Visual Notetaking for Educators: A Teacher's Guide to Student Creativity, as well as several articles on best practices for ELLs, educational neuroscience, and teacher leadership. A lifelong learner, she loves using creativity to empower her learners. She can be reached on Twitter @wendi322:

I've been teaching for more than 21 years, so I've had my share of tough moments, but this---this---was by far the toughest.

After teaching K-12 overseas, in various settings and content areas for 4 years, I returned stateside to teach.  I had demonstrated success with my students, exceeded expectations within my job description, and worked fastidiously with shared spaces, cardboard shelves for my books, and navigated what I learned was apparent disapproval for all that I tried, from my administrator.

I did not receive tenure after my 2nd year there, although I'd never received a below average teacher evaluation.

I had decided to pursue my MATESOL rather than comply with their insistence that I become licensed in World Literature for grades 9-12 (I was teaching ESL at an elementary level), and was told that I would not receive tenure as a result.

I was devastated, frustrated beyond belief, and mired in confusion to say the least.

I still roils my blood to think of the reasoning, or lack thereof, behind the decision, and I never did receive a courageous face to face explanation from my principal.

So 15 years on, the takeaways that resonate most deeply are as follows:

1) Facing a choice makes you realize what you really want--and I knew I wasn't done teaching yet. I had much I wanted to do, and I knew I was beyond competent, even though there is always so much to learn. I intended on obtaining my MATESOL, and continuing to teach.

2) I wanted desperately to see that my admin was doing what he was doing out of good intention. I had seen the admin treat others well, so I worked consciously to believe in the good side of him. It was a roller coaster, but I tried. He drove home how ineffective teacher evaluation can be when there is a lack of objectivity, and how one person in a right to work state can slam dunk someone's dreams without recourse.

3) It made me more intentional about my practice, and I actually became emboldened to do more and try new avenues. I ended up branching into new content areas, even becoming an Athletic Director for awhile, teaching language arts, Health and PE, and Algebra. I received a scholarship to study overseas for 2 years, at which time I worked part-time in several schools. It took 6 years for the state to recognize my degree, and after all is said and done, I'm still here.  Still fighting. 

4) The whole process has made me much more reflective, which in turn has made me more confident in my decisions. Even when I fail at something I can rationalize why I tried something, and learn from each experience. The thing is, when I fail, it's because I'm setting my sights higher and higher, so each failure still leaves me on solid footing.

An interesting note, I'm currently the district teacher of the year in the very same county where I was blocked from tenure 15 years ago. I don't think many folks are aware of this, but it has made the selection all the more sweeter. 

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Responses From Readers

David B. Cohen:

Returning to the classroom following a student's death by suicide. Not looking directly at his seat, but knowing it was there. I learned how much students need us to be authentic with them, to be honest and forthright. I watched trained grief counselors struggle to connect, to earn the students' trust, through no fault of their own. When I took similar approaches but without sounding like I was operating from the Grief 101 syllabus, and added some of my personal experiences, students said that made a difference.

Maria Miller (she notes that the names have been changed in this story):

This most difficult moment in my teaching career happened in mid-April of 2014, my first full year teaching. It was a Sunday, and I was driving back from my hometown. About ten minutes from my house, I received a phone call from a number I did not recognize. When I answered (via Bluetooth, of course), I heard a familiar voice, crying, on the other end: "Miss Miller, I know we aren't allowed to contact you this way, but I begged your landlord (she was the mother of a student) for your number. Travis* died." Immediately, I pulled over. The student on the other line, Ryan*, was sobbing.

"What?" I asked. 

"Miss. Miller, Travis Black* just passed away. He was in an ATV accident."

I was stunned. Travis was in my creative writing class that had ended a few week earlier, and although he struggled in many of his other classes, he was a superstar in mine. To this day, mostly because of him, his writing, and general positivity in the classroom, I have not had a class built around such an amazing community. I grew close to Travis and his group of friends by holding them to high standards and believing in them. 

Through sobs, the voice on the other end continued, "Miss Miller, everyone is at the hospital. If you're not too busy would you come be here with us?"

"Of course, Ryan. I'll be there in fifteen."

Travis was a senior in high school, one week away from his eighteenth birthday and one month from his high school graduation. When I entered the teaching profession, I knew I would eventually face these types of circumstances, but I wasn't prepared to have had it happen my first year to a student with whom I was so close. 

When I pulled into the hospital parking lot, a swarm of crying students surrounded my car. I hugged each of them, offering words of support. One student, who had been in my literature elective earlier in the year asked, "Miss Miller, you got any literary quotes for us right now?" The only thing I could mutter were the first words of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land: "April is the cruelest month." 

The next month and a half of school blurred by, as the entire school community mourned. At a memorial ceremony, Travis became the first member of his class to graduate, and his mother was presented with his diploma. As the song "See You Again" played, I handed out tissues to crying students and let a single tear roll down my face. I hugged a female student as she cried and said, "Miss Miller, you're so strong."

I learned two things that year. First, I learned how difficult the vocation of teaching really is. The classroom can be tough, dealing with parents can be a nightmare, and jumping through administration's well-intended hoops can wear anyone out. However, those things pale in comparison to the emotional baggage an educator endures. The second thing I learned was the magnitude of my own strength. Around the students, I was able to consistently keep my composure and be strong for them. While I grieved quietly at home, my public strength afforded many students comfort and hope as they struggled with their grief. I had no idea I possessed such grace and strength. 

Mary-Lou Dunnigan:

During a parent interview following report cards being sent out, a parent, who was a high school English teacher challenged me on the evaluation I had given to their child in language. Knowing that the student truly had not demonstrated their potential, but upon reflection couldn't provide the documentation for the grade, I struggled to respond to their challenge. This uncertain space, not having an answer, was new for me as I viewed myself as a competent educator. I made a decision (or perhaps took a risk)  in that moment to embrace my vulnerable side. I looked the parent in the eye and said, "You've really given me something to think about and I thank you for that." It was in that moment that the phrase so commonly said by educators, 'I'm a life long learner' meant something to me in my soul. I recognized that I needed to seek understanding of assessment and evaluation, be authentically accountable to both students and parents and embrace the space which made squirm. I grew from being vulnerable that day and admitting that I needed to reflect, document student thinking and better understand the bigger picture of assigning grades.

In years to come, my career path did cross with the parent. Again, I decided to talk with them about the past event, and much to my surprise, the parent shared with me that my honest response gained tremendous respect for the educator I was becoming. I was midway through my career at the time of this encounter and consider it a pivotal moment for which I'm forever grateful! 

Thanks to Megan, Jenny, Linda and Wendi, and to readers, 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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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 or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

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Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

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Parent Engagement In Schools

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Student Assessment

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Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

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

Look for the next question-of-the-wekk in a few days...

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