Sunday, October 30, 2016

Success and Joy Turns to Failure and Stress by Sarah Windisch

Post submitted by Sarah Windisch. Thank you for your honesty and for your support of this project.

My greatest success as a teacher, the thing I am most spectacularly proud of, is also my biggest failure.

It’s not the failure I’m proud of - that makes my heart sick. I don’t know whether to rage or cry or keep fixing all the issues creeping up behind me. I don’t know whether to give up on the greatest thing I’ve ever done as a teacher and remember it as the most demeaned I’ve ever been. I can’t decide, because every time I see this project being a success, it’s the most amazing feeling. I can’t imagine a feeling that would compare.

And I don’t want to let that go.

You see, last year, students and I helped a blind student “see.” The jist is that we created vibration-sensitive devices that played a different song at various places in our school, so that when a blind student tapped them with his cane, he could form an audio map and navigate the building more independently. Fourth graders soldered, prototyped, problem solved and created, and they were so proud.

The blind student was so excited to use them. They were working. I was asked to write about them, and certainly agreed, because the devices would be crazy-easy to duplicate and were inexpensive. Other students in other places could benefit from this! We could create video tutorials! We were all on a change-the-world high.

The piece I wrote was picked up by another blog, and then shared on Facebook. (I felt your stomachs drop - you can feel it coming, can’t you?) The next thing I knew, I was in the principal’s office, desperately trying to edit a few words out, calling the editor of the other blog to have the story removed, on the phone with the Superintendent, having a mom submitting a formal ethics complaint to the State Board about me and trying to have my teaching certificate revoked. I’d used her son’s diagnosis descriptively and she didn’t approve.

Everyone picked sides. There was nothing but support from the district office. Other parents wondered who I’d take advantage of next or shared all the ways I was the best teacher in the universe. Some colleagues thought I’d get the recognition I finally deserved, others decided I was an opportunist. Out of all of this, the project sort of became untouchable:

Previously enthusiastic teachers decided they didn’t like having the devices near their classrooms because they were too loud and caused a distraction.

So I adjusted the volume.

The person in charge of charging the devices was so affronted by the way I’d been treated she refused to charge them any more out of spite, not realizing the vengeance she was actually taking was on the student and the project, not the unkind words and those who wielded them.

I just put students in charge of collecting them, charging them, and putting them back out. Carry on.

We’ve met all the roadblocks (Perseverance! Grit! Buzzwords!), but we’re not able to be consistent enough for the project to work the way it needs to. It’s thrilling to see the student hear his way around the building when the devices are up and running, but that’s not frequently enough for him to use it independently - his main outcome of the project. Well, THAT didn’t work.

The students who made the devices beam every time they see or hear them - their pride is evident. I’ve tried to shelter them from all the hurtful words tossed around in the fallout, but again, their parents are all on social media, and I can’t control what they consume or how they interpret it. Well, THAT didn’t work.

And here’s the failure for me: I retreated. I know that’s a wise maneuver sometimes, but it’s rarely one I employ. I was so hurt that something I was so proud of, something so good, was burning down around me that I didn’t fight back like I needed. I was cool and calm, good and professional. I jumped through all the hoops when I should have been shouting and balking. If I’d raised my voice, maybe others would have shouted for me as well. “Look at what they’re doing! Don’t investigate her semantic failings! Hold up this example of altruism!”

I also don’t want to stick my neck out for this student again, and that’s another huge failure for me. He didn’t do anything. But I’m not in a hurry to 3D print him Braille music LEGOs, because I’m terrified of what I might do wrong in the process of trying to be right. That CERTAINLY doesn’t work.

I don’t want this to be a failure. I don’t want to toss this in the trash bin of ideas. It changed the lives and minds of students - they saw, first hand, what they could do to help others. How to look at what was happening near them and think creatively about how to improve it. It’s all the things we aim for as teachers. And in that way, it’s a resounding success.

The way it changed me personally? That comes from how it didn’t work. It’s still bitter, not yet becoming sweet. Someday I want to be able to look at the whole project and let the breathtaking ambition and joy be what I see. But that’s not now. Now all I can think is,

“Well, THAT didn’t work.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sucker Punched with Elisa Pollard

The first real post of Well THAT Didn't Work comes to us from Elisa Pollard. I'd like to thank her for being brave and taking this first jump with us. Remember, if you have a story to share, named or anonymous, email me/share it with me at

Well, THAT didn’t work feels like such a great idea, and I really want to support the blog, but of course, as a “veteran” teacher I NEVER have those days (cough cough) and way back when I did, I have buried those memories deep in my subconscious. Trying to pry them out to share them with you has my confidence huddled in the corner, shivering, snotting, and weeping. (Yes, I absolutely do believe that the best teachers are a wee bit dramatic!)

Some of the earliest mistakes I made were outside the classroom. I was the first teacher to reach a fight in the hallway. Two boys were on the ground, wailing away. I fought my way to them and grabbed the one on top. I had him by both arms (my arms through his elbows). So the other boy popped right off the ground and sucker punched the kid I had hold of. OUCH. So. Yeah, THAT didn’t work.  

Same year, I bopped a kid on the head with the papers I had in my hand from the copier. He was slapping other children in the back of the skull with his hand, hard. I tapped him with folded up papers from behind and said, “Cut it out.”  End of story.  Except it wasn’t. I came into work the next morning. The Assistant Principal met me in the office and told me he would be sitting in on the parent conference at 8am. This child had gone home and told his mama I hit him in the head…. Which, yes, I did. (wince) Cold sweat broke out all over my body as I told my AP exactly what had happened. I had visions of my teaching career ending before it ever really began. He told me to remain calm, and that if this “angry mama” got aggressive or verbally abusive, I was to leave the conference (oh, boy). I didn’t see how I could reasonably argue that I didn’t hit this child in the head, and that just sounded AWFUL.  
Mom showed up with the teen in tow. He was a smug looking little booger. I introduced myself, apologized that we were meeting like this. And then I told her what had happened. She interrupted a few times to ask for confirmation from her son (who looked less smug now). At the end of my telling, she apologized for wasting my time, asked for permission to take her son outside before he went to first block. From the windows, we saw her pop her son on the head while asking him if he thought it was funny to lie on people and to embarrass her like that in front of good people. She didn’t have an umbrella or a large bag, but it would have been stereotypically perfect if she had. Not sure who that didn’t work out for, me or the child?  

Fast forward to the 21st century. (I’ve taught in two different centuries!) Technology does me in on a regular basis. The servers will go down. Links won’t work. Power outages. The endless spinning circle of loading doom. The day the computer started the “updates” and uploaded  at 38% for over an hour while docked to the active board where I anticipated running a lesson. Oh, and the uploading was only the first half. Then the updates had to INSTALL. Yeah, THAT didn’t work.

And then there was the time I tried out the new cute sticky notes on the corkboard link that you share with students as an exit ticket activity. And students used it to post where the party was that weekend and called each other names and edited each other’s posts. I couldn’t refresh quickly enough to see what the snickering was about. It felt like a bad version of whack-a-mole.  

Wait, WHY do we do this anyway? Why do we set ourselves up for public failure and humiliation in front of an audience of adolescents who are some of the snarkiest and unforgiving creatures to walk the planet? (That is the definition of teaching, right?) WHY having lived through that in real time, WHY would I drag it out of the lock box and share it with all of you? No one fails quite so wonderfully as a teacher. Or a writer. Or a writer who is also a teacher. Right?) [ed. note *sobbing*]

So why share? Why? Because those snarky insecure teens feel like failures all the time. They need to see us fail and handle it with grace… or even with less than grace. I might have pulled a hair or two or spun in place like Rumplestiltskin, or rolled my eyes until my scalp hurt. So throw your hands up. Admit defeat. Tomorrow you can try again. No one ever died from a day of down time in the classroom. And the next time you ask students to get out of their comfort zone, they might be a tiny bit more willing to try.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Welcome to Well THAT Didn't Work

It started, as it seems to so often now, with a series of tweets. I am a fifth grade teacher and I'm struggling with my class this year. I've got that perfect mix of kids that makes things difficult. And, since I'm dedicated to freedom and choice in my classroom, I'm having a hard time reconciling the fact that I might have to dial some of those freedoms back with that belief structure.

I'm also a firm believer in honestly online. Too often edutwitter and edublogs only show the best of us. And why wouldn't they? We're taking a risk by writing about our classrooms, we should put our best feet forward. Except when everyone is only putting their best feet forward it's not helping those lessons with two left feet. It's tripping those lessons up. I believe I've pushed this metaphor as far as it will go.

I try to talk about my failures and struggles. I try to be transparent and honest with struggles because I honestly think we're all in this together and it's important that we see each other stumble and fall. Hard.

And I'm not even talking the Fail Forward stuff we see online or the First Attempt In Learning cliches. Maybe you took a risk and it exploded, maybe you just had one of those days when everything was conspiring against you, or maybe you conspired against yourself. We can learn from all of those, and we can better see everyone as human. No one is a Super Teacher. No one has it all figured out. No one should pretend they do.

I think teachers are inherently cool and overwhelmingly conservative when it comes to speaking out. Here's what that means- Everyone wants to be nice to each other for the most part. But no one wants to be the first to jump. It's easy to say, "Yeah, we should talk about our failures more and more honestly," but it's something completely different to actually write that blog and put it out there, 

This space is for that. Named or anonymous, I hope teachers will talk about the times things went sideways badly. There doesn't even have to be a moral to the story. It doesn't need to end with, "And from that I learned to blah blah blah." Sometimes the problem is enough. I'll take submissions at, and I'll moderate and edit as needed. I have commenting set to requiring approval, so nothing mean or disrespectful will make it through my filter to the public blog. 

I have no idea how well this will work. I'll figure out a posting schedule when/if I start getting submissions. This is not my space, this is our space. I'm not going to carry it (though Science knows I make enough mistakes I probably could). I'm providing a venue. 

Once again, if you've got something to share that you think fits under the fairly broad umbrella of, "Well THAT Didn't Work" write it up in Docs (or wherever you process words), share it or email it to Don't sweat word count or images or anything. Tell us your story. Funny, sad, frustrating, all of the above. Tell me if you want your name on it or if you want it to be by A. Non Mouse. 

*deep breath* Let's see what happens. And, like Elisa says...