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.”


  1. I am in awe of your project! And yes while you were attacked and beat down, you were right. Reading your story, there was no self promotion or making yourself look good - it was about what your STUDENTS did. And if you are putting your students first, then you and they win every time. So I encourage you to keep going, keep pushing.
    This is a revolutionary idea, one that should be copied by other schools and places.

  2. Wow - this sounds like an amazing project that really made a difference for one student (and a whole group of students who implemented it). And...that makes the fallout hurt so much more.

    We are only human. We can only take so much. Don't beat yourself up for backing off.

    If nothing else, your post has given me, and whoever else reads it, a great idea to hold onto for the future if we have a student with similar needs!