If You're Going to FAIL, Make it Epic
Has it really been two months since my last post???
Yep. It has been. New job, new district, new responsibilities. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.
If it means anything, in my head I was drafting all sorts of posts that just didn't quite make it here.
Anyway, one of those many drafts being telepathically composed had to do with fear. Or, more specifically, the fear of failing.
When friends and family ask me how I like the new job, my response is usually an enthusiastic one. The absolute and undeniably best part of my job is meeting teachers, listening to the ways they want to engage their students, and helping them integrate those new and innovative methods of teaching into their curriculum.
Committing to a new technology feels like standing on the edge of a precipice: you either experience an adrenaline rush that'll empower you to sprout wings and soar, or you endure a crushing panic that's going to catapult you to your death.
Hyperbole aside. . . either option is frightening. Crash and burn? Or take a flying leap into the unknown?
That's what stepping out of your comfort zone feels like. And the biggest question I hear (both verbalized and tacit) is "What if it fails?"
I work with a number of teachers who want to step out of their comfort zone; who want to trade in worksheets for Google docs; who want to exchange exit slips for Socrative; who want to dump stale end-of-the-term assessments for project-based learning and Genius Hour.
But. . .
Look at the image below. Do you see that tiny little space between the circle that says "Your comfort zone" and the circle that says "Where the magic happens?" It might as well be a murky chasm for some educators. A daunting abyss. A bottomless and black lacuna (More hyperbole, but I'm trying to make a point.)
Every single teacher I've coached has had that one soul-crushing moment of "I can't do that. It won't work." It usually follows pretty rapidly on the heels of that anything-is-possible moment of "I can't wait to try that with my students!" If we could just cross that teensy little gap!
I share with these skeptical teachers the story of every single time as a teacher I failed at technology integration. About the times I dove right in without grasping every single aspect of the technology. About the times I looked kind of dumb in front of my students for not having all the answers. About the times I didn't plan for server issues, saving, exporting, collaborating, plug-ins, or upgrades. About the many times that a great idea took a giant kamikaze nose dive.
And then I tell the stories of how as a result, I appeared more human in front of my students. About the times we worked together to troubleshoot issues. About the times individual students rose to the challenge of actively owning their own learning instead of passively waiting for me to deliver it. About the times they then collaborated with their peers to arrive at individual and class solutions. About the times we realized that maybe for this one particular issue, lesson, or content standard, technology wasn't even necessarily the way to go.
I grew up looking to my teachers for all the answers. And that worked at the time, because the teachers did have all the answers, remember? In that mammoth, well-worn teacher's edition? Back then, our teachers gave us the answers and we gave them right back--often as a test or a paper--to an audience of exactly. . .one.
The world's a much different place than it was when I was a student. Today, our students can publish to a global audience, and they don't need us to do it. They can find answers to their questions, and they don't need us to provide them. They can explore their own historical and scientific and literary interests, and they don't need us to give them permission. And I think that's most definitely frightening when we've spent a lifetime and a career providing answers.
One teacher who's about to retire confided in me that she's glad she's done because, as she puts it, kids today have "pulled back the curtain. We used to be the great and powerful Oz. Now we're just that little guy being exposed."
There's a lot of fear behind that statement; but it's understandable, given from where we've come.
I like to share with trepidatious teachers that they can find comfort in knowing that shift happens. (Couldn't help myself.) There's something truly liberating in not being required or expected to know everything. If we're preparing our students for college and career, then having them take ownership of their learning is a valuable skill. No employer wants his employees running to him 27 times a day asking, "What do I do now? How do I do this? Is this right?" We want self-directed, self-motivated problem-solving employees out in the workplace, so why would we want anything different from our learners?
My mother always said that experience was the best teacher. I'd add that failing is the runner-up. We shouldn't treat classrooms as self-contained bubbles. Bruises and scrapes are necessary; they build character. Failure is an option. I've always learned a better and more valuable lesson after experiencing skinned knees.
I like to view failure as Henry Ford did, at the: "opportunity to begin again more intelligently."
I think once we accept that we as teachers will (probably) fail the first time we introduce a new tool, platform, or app to our curriculum, once we embrace failure as a (necessary) step towards mastery, and if we (definitely) learn from the experience, then our failure is epic.
And I mean that in the best possible way.
I'll end here with a story I share with every teacher reluctant to let go of the past, hesitant to take a leap off the edge:
In 2008, just when Wikipedia was really gaining notoriety, and when wiki platforms were really gaining momentum, I had the bright idea to give it a try with my eighth graders. Instead of book reports, we were going to create a class wiki about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. So, I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. the night before, reading the "rules" of how to create a wiki in PBWorks, checking the FAQs, and basically making sure that, in effect, I had all the answers. My lesson on wiki creation was going to be airtight.
But when Caitlyn and Stephen both tried to edit a page and couldn't, and when James became frustrated trying to insert an image, they looked to me for the answers.
I had none.
I panicked. My lesson was going down in flames. The curtain was being pulled back and I was being exposed as Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, the real man behind the curtain. (Yes, that's his actual name.)
I remember thinking, "This is what I get for sneaking up to the ledge and thinking I could fly." It was like being the lead in a play and forgetting your lines: dumbstruck, open-mouthed, and staring out at the audience.
I swear I could hear crickets chirping. It was that quiet.
Then Nick said, "Hey, Ms. D? I can help James. I think I figured it out."
So I let Nick show James how to insert an image.
And I started breathing again.
A few minutes later, Mark called out, "Ms. D! Look what I found! Did you know you could...?" (Whatever it was, I can't remember. I was too relieved he had figured it out for himself.)
Nick went home that night and initiated the social networking feature, or comments section, on the class wiki. (Who knew?) With each "new comment" email alert I received that evening, I grew less and less anxious. They were teaching each other, collaborating, reviewing, and guiding.
I expected them to either be mad at me (for not knowing) or to be dismissive of me (for not needing me). They weren't. They were, as they informed me much later, happy I let them simply do.
That moment was empowering--for my students and for me.
Oddly enough, it's empowering as a teacher to not have to know all the answers. It's empowering for our students to know that they're capable of finding those answers all on their own.
So, I encourage you--if you're ambivalent or doubtful or just plain unnerved by the whole idea of integrating a new technology into your classroom, prepare to fail.
Do it epically.
And I mean that in the best possible way.
images via The Tilted Cusp, Start of Happiness, and edgalaxy.com
Learning Designer. Instructional Coach. Trainer. Working my hardest to create Teacher-Bordered Classrooms.