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Interview Of The Month — Bill Ferriter

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As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, I’m publishing August’s “Interview Of The Month” a few days early. Bill Ferriter, teacher, blogger, author, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network has agreed to answer a few questions.

Why did you choose to be a teacher?

Choosing to be a teacher, I think, was easy.  I knew that I wanted to make a difference and no profession provides change agents with more opportunities to be influential than education.

I mean, we have the chance to change lives.

That’s powerful stuff, isn’t it?

Knowing that each morning brings new chances to have a positive impact on the students in my classroom is pretty awesome—and while I don’t always get things right, I’m doing my best to matter.

What has motivated you to do so much writing on education issues?

I’m a firm believer, Larry, that the closer one is to the classroom, the more they understand about what works in schools.

The sad reality, though, is that the closer one is to the classroom, the less influence they have over the policies that govern our buildings.

That’s a function of our traditional educational structures.  Teachers, in our thinking, are only working when they are in front of a room of students.

When you’re in front of students every day, though, there is little time to play any kind of role in important conversations about what should be happening in our classrooms.

We’re left with groups of people who know little about the reality of teaching and learning making the most important decisions about the direction our schools should take.

How sick is that?

Writing—particularly blogging—became a tool for me to elbow my way into those important conversations.

I don’t need anyone’s permission to share what I know about teaching and learning anymore.  More importantly, I don’t need any release time from the classroom to get involved.

Every time I sit down behind the keyboard, I can be influential.  I can shape thinking.  I can be heard—and as long as I can hook a few regular readers, I might just be making a difference.

Need proof?

I bumped into a member of our state board of education a few years back.  She sought me out at a function and said, “I’m reading your blog, Bill.  The name scares me, but I’m listening.”

How cool is that?

Can you give a brief overview of each of your three books?

My books are extensions of each of my personal passions—professional learning communities, teaching with technology, and using social media to communicate and connect.

Building a Professional Learning Community at Work is designed to be a practical guide that schools can use to structure their first steps with PLCs.

It includes dozens of handouts that can be used by learning teams to overcome the most common barriers to effective collaboration—and it was recognized as Learning Forward’s 2010 Staff Development Book of the Year.

Teaching the iGeneration is essentially my efforts to document everything I know about good teaching in the 21st Century.

I start by introducing readers to the changing nature of today’s learners.  Then, I try to show readers how to build bridges between what we know about good teaching and what our students know about new digital tools.

Each chapter focuses on an essential skill—managing information, collaborating, communicating, persuading—that teachers will be comfortable with already.  Then, I give practical examples of how I use digital tools to make those skills more effective and efficient for today’s learners.

It’s chock-a-block full of handouts too!

My third book—Communicating and Connecting with Social Media—is an attempt to show school leaders several positive ways that social media tools like Facebook and Twitter can be used to improve their work.

Specifically, we try to show principals how to use social media tools to reach out to their communities, to improve their own learning and to improve the learning of their faculties.

We intentionally avoid introducing strategies for teaching with social media simply because teaching with social media is still a controversial practice in most communities.

We believe, however, that as educators begin to embrace social media spaces as sources for personal learning, they’ll naturally look for safe ways to introduce those same spaces and practices into their classrooms.

What do you think are three key questions teachers should consider asking their principal and/or tech staff person to get them thinking about using ed tech more effectively?

Great question, Larry—and I love that there is an assumption that we should be asking questions about our ed tech choices at all!

Sadly, that lack of systematic thinking often ends up in schools that spend thousands of dollars on tools that do little to change learning in a meaningful way.

Need proof?  Check out this piece about a principal that dropped $18,000 on 6 Interactive Whiteboards.

#whatawaste

The most effective schools think about quality instruction first and then work to find the tools—and make the purchases—that advance quality instruction.

These three questions can help to keep an instruction-first perspective at the forefront of any school’s ed tech thinking:

1. What does our community value the most?  What role do creativity, collaboration, and collective inquiry play in our beliefs about learning?

2. What does an engaged classroom look like in action?  What is it that we most want to see happening in our classrooms?

3. How are our technology purchases helping us to move closer to both our mission and our vision of an engaged classroom?

What are three key things you think it would be helpful for many non-educators who are making decisions about education to hear?

Only three, huh?  This won’t be easy, but I’ll give it a try.

Given that current conversations in most edu-circles seem to be centered around canning crappy teachers, let’s focus on what accomplished individuals expect from a profession:

Accomplished individuals expect workplaces that are professionally flexible: Talented teachers are like any talented professional—they thrive in workplaces that allow them to experiment and to explore their practice.

Current policies that increasingly control the work of classroom teachers are simply not professionally satisfying for the best and the brightest.

If we are really serious about improving teacher quality by attracting the best and the brightest to our classrooms, we’ve got to create educational policies that encourage—rather than stifle—innovation.

Accomplished individuals are not afraid of accountability, but they expect to be evaluated fairly: Our education system is currently being broken to pieces by policymakers who are hell-bent on “holding teachers accountable” for performance.

The hitch is that “holding teachers accountable” means nothing more than measuring student performance on poorly structured end-of-grade exams that:

  1. Aren’t given in every class.
  2. Don’t cover the entire curriculum.
  3. Measure low-level skills.
  4. Fail to take into account the impact of out-of-school factors on students.

That’s why we push back when policymakers craft half-baked plans built around testing as a tool for accountability.

We’re not opposed to being held accountable for our performance, but we are smart enough to know when the accountability programs are unfair at best and irresponsible at worst.

Systematically demonizing teachers is driving accomplished people away from our profession: I’m exhausted, Larry, by the never-ending attacks on teachers that have become so common.

Hearing the same vitriol spewed over-and-over again—teachers are lazy, teachers are brainwashing children, teachers are overpaid, teachers are bankrupting states—is making it less and less likely that we’ll ever be able to attract enough accomplished individuals to our classrooms to be successful.

Who wants to be a punching bag for the public for their entire career?

You’ve made a switch this year to teaching Science.  Why did you make that change, how has it gone, and what have you learned?

Are you ready for this, Larry:  I made the switch to teaching science because it is currently an untested subject in my state.

Now, if people want to “hold me accountable,” they need to actually come into my classroom and watch me teach for a while.

They’ve got to see my kids in action and start asking questions.  The only evidence they have to judge me is what they can see with their own two eyes.

When I was teaching language arts, standardized test results became the only indicator that anyone ever used to determine whether or not I was an accomplished teacher.

It was like an evaluation cop-out.  Why bother doing the hard work of observing and evaluating teachers when you’re going to get a set of test scores back each spring, right?

Moving to science guarantees that I’ll be assessed on something more than a test—and I’ve loved it.

Is there anything you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you about?

Sure—you never asked whether I thought I’d still be teaching in 5 years.

The answer is I’m just not sure anymore.

My goal has been to be a full-time practitioner for my entire career.  There’s just something noble about spending my whole life as a full-time classroom teacher.

And honestly, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

But I really can’t justify a 10-month position that requires me to work about a dozen part time jobs just to pay my bills AND that subjects me to constant criticism and insult anymore.

I get paid really well as an educational consultant—and my writing has earned me a ton of opportunities to move into that work on a full-time basis.

I’ve fought to resist the temptation to leave the classroom for probably the past 5 years.

But I’m so hacked off by the way teachers are being treated—and so pessimistic about our chances of seeing sanity return to conversations about schools—that I’m probably closer to leaving than at any point in my professional career.

#sadbuttrue

Thanks, Bill….Hang in there….

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for putting this together, Larry and Bill. Not only because I like you both personally, not only because both of you have influenced my thinking and my practices for the better, and not only because I think Bill makes a number of excellent points… no, the main reason I’d want to pass this along is that I think Bill’s actual experiences speak volumes about what’s wrong in too many American schools right now – and what’s right about teacher voice and teacher leadership.

  2. What a great interview! Thanks for making it!

  3. Hi Larry and Bill,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

    Best,

    Ann

  4. Pingback: School Tools Make

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