Hello Failure My Old Friend

Last week, the Weird Teacher (an educator and blogger I bumped into on Twitter) started a blog called Well THAT Didn’t Work, where teachers can share their “stumbles, trials, and utter catastrophes.” I also saw a tweet earlier this week (that I cannot find now and I regret not retweeting) that said something to this effect: When you share only your successes and not your failures, you are serving yourself and not the greater good.

Plus, on Monday night, our district’s Twitter chat was about fear: fear of failure; fear of trying new things; and for at least one person, fear of zombies. (That one person was me. Zombies are terrifying.)

I’m also reflecting on Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and rereading bits of Roxanna Elden’s See Me After Class, debating whether or not to lend it to a new teacher. The bit where she unintentionally ruins Halloween for her class is something I find painfully relatable.

It feels like the universe is pointing me to reflect on my failures as a teacher.

My many, many failures.fail-1714367_640

Some are small or even funny. Like when I accidentally said “orgasm” instead of “organism” to a seventh grade science class while teaching at a Catholic school. Many people reach out to compliment me on the way my students and I do our school’s morning announcements. It’s pleasing to me, but gosh, I wish I could just get all the other teachers in our building to engage with them! Others are small but terrible, and I carry them with me like a wound. Like the time I scolded a child for kicking a cardboard divider to get my attention, then remembered much later that said child has a deaf parent, and creating big movement to catch an adult’s eye is normal to them. Others are small and stupid. Especially in terms of tech issues, I often feel like I’m carrying the Idiot Ballcarrying the Idiot Ball. I reach our tech department about problems that, deep down in my brain, I know the answer to; or problems that I could solve if I could just focus or notice the one thing I’m missing. I feel much sympathy for my students and colleagues in those moments for sure!

Some of my failures aren’t really so much failures as they are doing what you can with what you have in the time you have. A few weeks ago I was really excited to try color-coding all the keyboards in my classroom. Those stickers eventually fell off, and I replaced them with neon washi tape, which either fell off or got peeled off, I’m not sure. Either way, very few stickers are where they should be at this point. Luckily, they served the purpose they needed to, and most students have at least practiced enough to know where the letters in their usernames are. My time is now better spent on other things, but I do miss the rainbow-looking keyboards! And for the few students who still struggle, I put stickers on their keyboards just while they’re with me, or make sure they’re using a keyboard where most of the stickers stuck around. So it’s not as seamless as it was at first, but we’re doing what we can.

Other failures are bigger and build up over time. One of my biggest struggles in my career has been classroom management. Not only is that the type of thing you’re not amply prepared for by college classes, it’s the type of thing that adapts and changes according to the students you have. I have failed by being overly fluid and by being overly rigid, sometimes in the same room on the same day with the same kids! Classroom management, to me, is like learning to ride a bike. It’s really hard at first, and I figured it out much later than my peers. But even people who are really good sometimes still stumble, or even crash.

I’ve forgotten things, lost things, lost my temper, lost track of time, misspoke, misjudged, used poor judgment, bitten off more than I could chew, over-committed, panicked, dropped the ball, burned out, and hid from other people in the grocery store.

And now? Now I’m in a stage of my career where I invite failure.

For example, I’ve taught many of my third graders how to use the chat function in a shared Google Doc to backchannel. This… this could go terribly, terribly wrong. And for some students, it really doesn’t work. Some get distracted by it so they don’t actually get their work done. Others spam it. Others use it inappropriately, either through ignorance of norms (like TYPING AT ALL THEIR CLASSMATES LIKE THIS) or ignorance of how the technology works (one would-be agent of chaos used the chat to ask their classmates whether they like butts, without realizing their full name was attached to their message). And how do I handle this? I acknowledge that failure it part of the learning process. And I acknowledge that out loud, to the students. I don’t add punishment on top of their embarrassment. And I allow some degree of self-policing (if someone posts twenty emojis in one go, at least three other students will tell them to knock it off before I even notice).

But if I fear failure, then I fear progress, because moving forward always carries the risk of stumbling. I do not mean the title of this post entirely sarcastically: failure is familiar to risk-takers. Hopefully we’re not failing all day, every day, in spectacular fashions, but teachers need to accept that failure is going to happen. We don’t need to be comfortable with it, but we can’t keep it entirely at bay either.

And the real reason why: because failure is an intrinsic, important part of the learning process for students. And if we model being right all the time, then students may develop unreasonable expectations of adults and of themselves. Failure is a part of living. We don’t need to like it, but we need to learn to live with it.

School Week Round-Up: Week Eleven

Week one-million! Okay, I’m exaggerating, it’s only week eleven. But this is one of those weeks where it feels like forever.

Lessons: First graders are using Google Drive this week for the first time with me, particularly Google Slides. I showed them how to add shapes and change their size and color. Many of them figured out how to add text on their own, and that knowledge spread. That kind of thing is so interesting to observe, since it gives me an idea on what I can expect out of them in the future.

Support: So our school district got more bandwidth, and it’s such a relief. Things are just going more smoothly as a result.

Things I Did Well: This week I felt good in my own skin, which is not really a professional victory, but it is professional-adjacent. I am very aware of how enclothed cognition impacts my attitude. In fact, when I’m feeling my worst, I’m usually dressing my best. My “best” might not be the most professional clothes I own, but clothes that make me feel good about myself.

Things I Will Do Better: I definitely felt a bit grumpy and short-tempered this week. One of the things I’m very aware of as a teacher is how my reactions to things often have a lot less to do with students, and more to do with me myself. For example, one day I might be absolutely fine with a lot of noise. But maybe the next day I’ve got a headache and would really prefer it more quiet. But those kinds of things are not things kids can know about me, especially since those are often things I’m only aware of in myself if I’m paying attention. It would be unfair to punish students one day for behavior that was acceptable the day before. So I try to pay attention to myself; accept support when it comes (like relying on other teachers to step up during bus dismissal); and, when reasonable, communicate directly with students about what I might be feeling without making them responsible for my feelings.

To be perfectly honest, this is one of the reasons I find a class pet to be useful. It’s not really appropriate to say to kids, “Hey, I need you to chill today, because I’m PMSing really bad.” Somehow, though, it seems okay (if still manipulative) to put that on the lizard. “Hey, Qwerty seems to be really grouchy today, so maybe we should try to be extra-quiet?” It works the other way too. Sometimes when I notice a student having an off day, I tell them Qwerty is having an off day, could they please give him a pep talk? Obviously he listens (what choice does he have) but really they’re giving the pep talk to themselves. It’s not a foolproof plan, but it gives kids the chance to put their feelings into words, identify with their feelings, and decide what to do with or about those feelings.

Cold Prickly: Diffusion of responsibility. Our dismissal duties are shared among a wide pool of people, largely to make sure there’s always someone there. But sometimes it feels like there are more people than needed to accomplish a task. For example, for car rider dismissal, there are four or five teachers who man the walkie-talkies and communicate about the specific kids to send out, and when. But there’s only four walkie-talkies, so the other teachers at that duty mind the children as they’re called. As time has gone by, children became accustomed to the routine and are pretty chill now. So, from the outside looking in, it appears as though the child-minding teachers are socializing with each other at least as much as they’re actually minding the children. I don’t begrudge them this, because they also rotate in and out with the walkie-talkie teachers.

In fact, I don’t even have car rider duty. I have a bus duty, where we gather two busloads of students in the cafeteria and dismiss them from there. I took this duty because I had a better ability than other teachers to get there in a timely manner, otherwise groups of students were reaching the cafeteria before teachers were and were unsupervised until an adult arrived. This week, there was a combination of circumstances where I was the only teacher in there for far too long. I could tell it was too long because our buses were waiting outside, but I couldn’t actually take the children to the bus without leaving the other busload of children unsupervised. I had to call the office and ask them to use the announcements system to summon others to the cafeteria.

Now, I don’t know why the other teachers didn’t show, or showed so late. Maybe some were on their way when I had the announcement made. But it seemed to me to be a problem with the diffusion of responsibility. I was raised in a large family; often there would be an important chore that needed done. But you would look at the stack of dishes in the sink, calculate how many other people lived in the house, and think to yourself, “There are x number of people who can and probably will do that; therefore I do not have to.” I think bus duty has become the same way. The people who take on the most active roles are the ones most consistently there. Others feel that, since those other people are there to get things done, they’re less necessary and it won’t be a huge loss if they don’t show. I think this is fine for individuals to experience on occasion, but when many or even most people experience it on the same day, it can lead to big problems.


Warm Fuzzy: My poop emoji hairstyle I wore on October 31st. I sat in a meeting for 30 minutes before any other adults noticed it, and the one who did thought it was a little monster. But kids recognized what it was instantly.

Ain’t I a stinker?

Reflecting on Our School Mock Election Results

This past Tuesday, our school took part in a mock election run by Studies Weekly. We threw it together a little last minute, so instead of shoehorning it into classrooms where other instruction was already planned, we turned the computer lab into a polling place for students to vote after breakfast, during lunch, and during recess. I had classes vote while they were in the room for other reasons, like class (since it took only a minute or so, if I had computers at the ready). And, there were times when I visited classrooms juggling a couple Chromebooks and pulled kids to poll in pairs. (Alliteration proves it was fun.)

On the enthusiasm gap

I’ve been paying enough attention to this election to have heard about the enthusiasm gap. According to this September article from The Hill:

People who intend to vote for [Trump] are more enthusiastic about doing so than those planning to back Clinton, according to three major recent polls…

…a CNN/ORC poll indicated that more than 1 in 5 five would-be Clinton voters were “not at all enthusiastic” about backing her, almost twice as many as said the same about Trump. The poll found 58 percent of Trump supporters saying they felt either “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about their choice, and only 46 percent in the Clinton camp feeling the same.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Trump backers were “very enthusiastic,” compared with only 33 percent of Clinton supporters. And a New York Times/CBS News poll saw Trump outperforming Clinton by the same metric, 45 percent to 36 percent.

I bring up the enthusiasm gap because, anecdotally, it seems to have reached the elementary set. At one point mid-day, I turned to Mr. Bob and said, “My prediction is that Trump will win.” I was not checking the mock election progress throughout the day (although I could have been). I was trying not to watch students as they cast their votes (except when they actually needed help). My prediction was made based on how many students proudly declared before, during, or after voting that they had chosen Donald Trump. However, more students actually voted for Hillary Clinton. Clinton won 48% of the vote; Trump got 34%. So, while students supporting Trump were perhaps more vocal about it, that did not mean there were more of them.

On look-alikes

I did have several students tell me that they had voted for “the girl,” but since Jill Stein was also offered as a choice, I wasn’t sure which “girl” they meant. In fact, I was concerned that some of them may have voted for the wrong “girl” – for Stein when they meant to vote for Clinton, or for Clinton when they meant to vote for Stein. Then I realized, if they didn’t know what the male candidates looked like, then they might have confused Johnson and Trump too. (The vote included photographs and names of candidates and their running mates, but a struggling reader may still have made a mistake.) The last time two times schools held mock presidential elections, it was probably much easier for students to tell the difference between the major party candidates, so long as photos were provided! I reflected back on voting in mock presidential elections as a student in the nineties. It doesn’t matter what year I refer to: our choices were always white men. I wonder whether any of my classmates at the time had trouble telling them apart.

On abstaining

One student abstained because: “My mom says no matter who you vote for, they’re gonna mess us up.”

Another hesitated to vote because he didn’t feel well-informed enough. “I wish I could listen to their speeches,” he told me. We did look up all the candidates on vote411.org and read through their statements and platforms together. Still, he did not feel like he could cast a vote, so I told him he didn’t have to.

Our other abstention came from a student who was upset that Obama couldn’t run for a third term. He was genuinely distraught. And then I realized — the oldest of my students were born in late 2007. Most of them are even younger. Obama has been president for their entire memory, if not their entire lives. Whoa.

On civility

I have not heard many students discuss political candidates at school directly. Part of this is because I am a specials teacher. Were I with the same kids all day, every day, I’m sure I would hear it more. I didn’t hear nothing, I just didn’t hear a lot.

Until Tuesday.

And even then, I probably wouldn’t have heard it, except another teacher invited the students specifically to share their insights. And by “insights,” I mean they parroted things they saw in political ads played on TV. The same student told me that Trump says mean things about women, and Hillary wants to take away everyone’s guns. No wonder over fifty students voted for third party candidates.

I did have to speak to some students about school-appropriate language. But very few.

The results

If you would like to see the results of the nationwide mock election, those results are here.  As I mentioned before, our school turned blue for Clinton, but our state turned red for Trump. Still, Clinton won the mock election over all.

What does it mean?

I don’t know. I imagine that, to some extent, the votes of children reflect the votes their parents plan to cast. I do remember bugging my parents about who they planned to vote for when I was a kid, especially when they were around other adults, that was totally my favorite. I think that was a huge factor in who I chose to vote for in mock elections. But, as this USA Today article on the Scholastic mock election states, students may misidentify their parents’ political leanings. Based on anecdotal evidence, too, I think many students have parents who are split themselves: one parent may support the Republican nominee, the other the Democratic candidate.

Other big influences on children include the media (TV and Internet, primarily) and, well, each other.

Overall, in the mock election we participated in, Ohio the bellwether state votes for the candidate who loses. Perhaps that’s something we can expect next Tuesday? I hesitate to make a solid prediction, having already been wrong about this! (Also, if you look at the Scholastic results linked above, Ohio turned blue for them.)


On November 9th, we will all still be Americans, diverse and divided we may be. And whoever gets elected president will have to lead us, diverse and divided, starting in January. It will be a tough job, harder than herding cats. But I hope it’s a job done well, regardless of who’s in that position.