Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the sports Larry Ferlazzo plays to give him energy. They are pickleball and basketball.
By day, Larry Ferlazzo is an English and social science teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. In his spare time, he has authored 12 books and is the face behind the Education Week blog series Classroom Q& A, as well as some other blogs.
Ferlazzo’s blogs, which essentially curate educators’ and experts’ advice in response to pressing classroom questions, are perennially popular. A May 2022 blog, “7 Ways Principals Can Support Teachers.” brought in more than 10,000 readers and counting; a 2021 piece, “What Are the Best Strategies for Small-Group Instruction? ” drew more than 28,000.
Education Week had a Q&A of its own last month with the opinion contributor and award-winning teacher, to talk about his former career as a community organizer, how he manages to do it all now, and the importance of relying on teachers for solutions to classroom problems.
The resulting conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.
How long have you been a teacher and how have you seen the teaching industry evolve over the past few years?
I just finished my 20th year at Burbank, working with English-language learners and IB [International Baccalaureate] students.
The school I’ve been working at is a great school. It’s about a third African-American, a third Latino, and a third Southeast Asian, predominantly Hmong, so it’s very diverse.
The students are great, and we’ve had a very supportive administration, so at my school, that support has continued.
Certainly, nationally, the last three years have been different for all of us everywhere. The challenges teachers have been experiencing related to the pandemic, attacks on teaching [about] systemic racism, and challenges to supporting gay and transgender youth, have contributed to making the teaching profession much more challenging nationally.
Another thing the pandemic has made transparent is the lack of skilled leadership at the top of many school districts now that historically, we teachers at the classroom level, had been able to shield our students from unwise ideas [such as failing to mandate masks or create online academies for students who did not want to or were not able to return to physical classrooms.]
How did the idea for Classroom Q&A emerge, and what is the writing process?
Yeah, the series is entering its 12th year.
It basically has as its underpinning the [organizing] principle of subsidiarity, which is based in Catholicism: believing the people who are most affected by the problem generally have excellent, if not the best, ideas on how to solve it.
By involving teachers and educators in coming up with questions and inviting educators, parents, and students to come up with the answers to those questions and getting a wide variety, we’ve come up with some pretty good ideas.
Unfortunately, the education world is filled with many folks who don’t spend a whole lot of time in the classroom or aren’t very connected to it but have very clear opinions of what should be done there, whether these are district superintendents or private foundation executives.
The idea of Classroom Q&A is going to the sources and getting people’s thoughts based on their experiences.
How do you access such a wide network of parents, teachers, and students for sources?
I also use some social media, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
I think I’m fairly well respected by my network and I’ve learned a lot from them over the years.
How do you manage your time to juggle so many different projects?
I have an extraordinarily supportive spouse, which helps a lot, and I’m working at a great school where I can teach and not deal with a lot of internal politics to do with a dysfunctional school administration.
I also play pickleball and basketball, and that gives me energy as well.
Our kids are on their own, so that also frees up time, but I keep pretty busy.
But it’s exciting, energizing work. One of the reasons why I do the writing that I do is that it helps me become a better teacher in the classroom. I learn so much from others.
Just as we tell students that writing helps us clarify our thinking, it does the same for all of us, whether you’re a student or a teacher.
You’ve worked extensively with English-language learners and ELL/ESL teachers. Can you tell us a little more about your work?
My parents were immigrants, and my father also taught ESL. My organizing career was to a large extent around immigrant communities, so I had a particular interest in teaching English-language learners.
Sacramento was a hub for Hmong refugees. My first year of teaching at Burbank was an extraordinary experience.
I got to teach high school-age students who had never been in school before, and that’s something very few high school teachers can ever say.
Our school had a substantial number of English-language learners, and my administrators, colleagues, and I believe that good teaching for English-language learners is good teaching for everybody.
Our administrators have always specifically sought out English-language learner students [to teach], because it makes all teachers better.
In light of the teaching shortages across the country, what advice would you give to improve teacher recruitment and retention?
It would be good if district administrators did not view themselves as the smartest people in the room and invited the voices of teachers in the classroom, as well as parents and students, into the decisionmaking process.
Additionally, providing fair wages and financial support is needed.
[Staff in] our district, this past year, had to go on an eight-day strike when the district proposed actually reducing our salaries through increasing health-care premiums. That was in the midst of a pandemic.
That wasn’t the most morale-boosting move by our district leadership.
From all the work you’ve done for the classroom Q& and A series, have there been some pieces that have stood out to you?
Each year, one of my favorite columns is when students contribute their best moments in schools and what teachers did to help make those happen.
Those columns can make a great professional-development series for any school district anywhere.
Over the past two years, there have been scores of posts related to helping teachers teach during the pandemic, whether it was distance learning, concurrent teaching, or ways schools can provide emotional support to students.
I think that the blog really performed a valuable service, especially during the past two and a half years and during the first few months when teachers were desperate. This is all new to us, how to cope.
On your personal website, you have a Larry Ferlazzo’s “best of” series. What is the idea behind that?
Based on the wide variety of work you’ve done, what insights have you taken from the education field on diversity?
In the contributors to classroom Q&A, I work pretty hard at getting a widely diverse group of contributors. Now—and I could do better—but roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of contributors are educators of color, students of color, or parents of color.
I think we need to do a better job of culturally responsive teaching, and reaching out and recruiting teachers of color, and most importantly, supporting them as well.
We’ve got to realize that just getting a teacher of color to contribute to a Q&A or getting a teacher of color into a school is not enough.
It’s a first step, but if we’re serious about being effective teachers to our students and the U.S. public school population, which is now a majority of students of color, we need to get teachers who are reflective of that.
I mean, most teachers are white, and that doesn’t mean we can’t teach students of color effectively, but we’ve got to acknowledge and recognize that we have different backgrounds, experiences, and biases.
But, again, there’s tons of great stuff happening in classrooms every day. Millions of students are having great experiences, and teachers are doing great work. It would just be nice if there weren’t so many obstacles put in our way.
Are there any upcoming projects that you’re really excited to cover now?
Every time there’s a new year of Q&A, there’s always a bunch of new exciting questions I can learn from, and I hope others can learn from.
We’ve got some great questions coming up, including: What are the one or two things you would say to your first-year teacher self?
There’s so many great teachers out there, and it’s great that there are teachers of the year and other stuff, but there are zillions of teachers who are just as good as anybody, and I’m just happy EdWeek has provided me the opportunity to tap and share that expertise.
I know it’s trite to say this, but you know, if you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.
So what’s exciting about Q&A is it’s a virtual room and there are so many people out there that are smarter and better teachers than I. And it’s just a great opportunity to be able to learn from.