During the past couple of weeks, I envisioned, planned, initiated, and carried out a project with students.
I thought it was a good idea; it was founded on great intentions.
Yet, with the project nearing completion, I am clearly seeing something: the project is a dud.
This leaves me with two options:
- Ignore the failure. Run from it. Explain it away.
- Embrace the failure. Learn from it. Suck the marrow from its bones.
I’ll choose the latter (except maybe the marrow part — that’s kind of gross).
0. The Genesis
Back in December, I led world history students through the Hour of Code. It was our second year taking part in the event.
If you’re thinking, “Wait — computer programming in a world history class?” you are not crazy. I hustled to get us ahead in the curriculum, I framed the Hour of Code as a day’s side quest into current world history, and I got the needed computer lab booked for the day.
- My school doesn’t provide a computer science class (we’re not unique in that; despite the increasing need in the world for people who understand coding, most schools worldwide still do not offer even a single computer science course);
- I believe, as a guy whose whole professional life has been changed through this blog, and, less directly, by a general familiarity with how computers work and think, that this is an opportunity my students need. Access to coding classes is an equity issue, in other words — at least in my heart.
But the Hour of Code isn’t what I’m writing about today — I still think the Hour of Code is a great, efficient, one-period side quest. Nope — the plot gets thicker.
A follow-up challenge
This got my attention for a few reasons:
- I already believed that access to coding classes wasn’t just cool, but was important;
- I’m a big fan of getting classroom resources via DonorsChoose (to the tune of over $9,000 worth of materials to date — thank you to the many generous donors who have supported my projects);
- Deep down, there was still a part of me that wanted to be a version of the superhuman Rafe Esquith, who teaches kids not just his required curriculum, but classical music during lunchtime, logic games before school starts, unabridged Shakespeare after school, college entrance test prep on Saturdays, world travel on school holidays…. That’s what Rafe does and has done for decades, and the stories of what his students go on to do are amazing.
To make a long story short, I decided to pursue the challenge (here’s the post for my students in which I announced it), telling students that if they completed the online coding course within the next month, I’d give them $25 (Google was going to give me a $100 classroom donation in return for each kid’s course completion; it seemed fair for me to thank the kids with a little of my own money), and along the way I’d support them by being available during my normal office hours and on a special, 8am to 5pm “Google Saturday” that I would provide in my classroom.
I. The Vision
As teachers, we are often driven by What Could Be. We are like a less-creepy version of the kid from The Sixth Sense; instead of seeing dead people everywhere, we see potential. In our students, we don’t see just kids — we see the flourishing, contributing adults they are becoming.
I was taking that lens and applying it to this project. I envisioned dozens of kids completing the challenge, which would launch them into exciting ventures like starting their own businesses or considering new career options or discovering hitherto unknown gifts within themselves. Meanwhile, I would have access to hundreds of new books for my classroom library with all the Google donations. It was going to be great.
Meanwhile, my sweet wife, when she looked at our calendar, asked one day, “Wait, I know we talked about this — but explain the coding thing to me again?”
I’ve written before about how teachers must cultivate balanced lives; the myth of the super-teacher is most realistically portrayed in the movie Freedom Writers where the protagonist does incredible things with her students while simultaneously forsaking her husband. Super-teacher status comes at a cost; it’s one we ought to count carefully.
My passion for becoming a better and saner teacher is derived from a simple, longterm view on life. Namely, I doubt I will lie on my deathbed someday regretting that I returned those papers to my students a day later or that I didn’t have the world’s greatest classroom library, yet I am positive I will regret giving my wife and children the scraps of my energy, passion, and time. I do not want any reader of this blog to wander into a life that ends with that kind of regret. Our personal lives matter because, while the work of teaching is noble and fulfilling, it is not life itself.
Yet even if you’re not with me on that and for you teaching is life, I think there’s a pragmatic reason to cultivate intimate personal relationships instead of worshipping our work. The people we let into our whole lives — particularly when these people don’t live and breathe education like we do — are free from our teacher blinders.
We need people like that if we’re to be exceptional.
To bring it back to my story, if I were to tell any passionate teacher about my coding project idea, they would likely agree that it was worth a shot, that it wasn’t that big of a commitment, that it was a no-brainer. They’d say, “You go, Dave.”
But my wife isn’t a teacher; when I told her what I was planning, she immediately started asking questions:
- Wait — coding? Huh?
- How does this relate to where you’re trying to grow as a teacher?
- How does this relate to your long-term professional goals? How about your long-term life goals?
As usual, she wasn’t condemning me with her questions — she was genuinely curious about the mismatch between my stated professional priorities and this decision I had made. And after stammering about equity and passion and “it’s important to me” kind of stuff for a few minutes, I changed the topic of conversation.
But she had planted the seed.
Why was I doing this, really?
II. The Reality
Initial interest in my coding challenge was high; over 40 students signed up through Kahn Academy, and many of them completed at least a few lessons (this was a pre-requisite for entry into the Google Saturday event). A few kids even showed exceptional promise, blazing through hours of lessons each night.
Of course, in order to support them, I, too, needed to complete the Kahn Academy class, and so I did, chipping away at it each night while the kids were in bed. I told myself what we so often do as engaged professionals: it’s just a little bit of time, here and there; it’s practically no time, really.
The Anticlimactic Google Saturday
As Google Saturday approached, I passed around an RSVP form amongst my world history students; I told them to seriously consider if and when during the day they’d be coming to code so that I could plan accordingly for snacks, meals, and drinks. Over 30 students signed up.
Yet I was starting to have my doubts; every day this project was siphoning a bit of my time, energy, and thinking.
Coding, I was beginning to realize, made no sense as an energy-taking project for a teacher whose burning questions are things like
- How do I help students develop the core literacy skills of the English and world history classroom?
- How do I promote student ownership of learning?
- How do I aid students in developing their character?
- What are the most efficient ways for guiding students toward a flourishing life?
These are the questions that drive my work, and yet I was putting minutes and hours per day into coding-related questions.
Yet I had made a commitment, and so, at 6:30 in the morning on Google Saturday, I went to Meijer, spent a hundred bucks or so on snacks, and showed up to school to unlock the door and get the room ready. A handful of kids were there at 7:55, and, throughout the day, about 15 total kids showed up. Of those 15, a handful stayed focused for the entire time they were there, and more than a couple spent a majority of their time chowing down, enjoying one another, and getting a smidgen of coding done every now and then for good measure.
I laughed, I rocked out to their 80s music, I coded, I answered questions. We discussed social dilemmas, future plans, clothing styles, and For Loops. When 5pm hit, no one had finished the coding class (a few were close!), I was exhausted, and I had lots to think about.
III. The Lessons
While the deadline for kids to complete the coding class won’t hit for another 10 days or so, let’s just say that it’s unlikely my kids and I will bankrupt Google with all the DonorsChoose.org money we’ll be earning. As it turns out, the Kahn Academy coding class is well taught, but there’s no way around it: meaningful coding is hard — hence how rewarding it is to those who master it — and most of my students who started the challenge have indicated that they just aren’t able or willing to put in the time to work through that difficulty and dominate the challenge.
Please hear me when I say that I don’t begrudge them this at all; in fairness, when I recruited them into starting down this side quest, I didn’t realize how hard it would be, either.
No, I’m at peace with how the project turned out — but, honestly, most of that peace comes with how illuminating its failure was. It helped solidify key principles that underpin my work in the classroom and my work as a writer (much of my Never Finished ebook deals with these themes).
1. We need to be who we are
I think a key reason I got drawn into this project was because I was trying to be other people. I was trying to be Rafe Esquith, coming in on the weekend and supporting his students in a subject that the state doesn’t mandate but that truly matters. I think that, ever since I first read There Are No Shortcuts as an undergrad, I’ve wanted to be Rafe Esquith when I grew up as a teacher. I’m not kidding; I was recently looking back through an old bucket list Crystal and I made early on in our marriage, and one of my items on the list was “Direct an unabridged Shakespeare play.”
And then there’s this other part of me that wants to be an Erica Beaton or a Penny Kittle or Donalyn Miller with an epic, overflowing classroom library. When I saw the chance to earn 2,000 bucks of DonorsChoose.org money, I thought, “Ohh — that’s a lot of classroom library books; sweet!”
But here’s the thing: I think that these desires to be like our greatest heroes, when we dig into them a bit, can be at least a bit unhealthy and even professionally unproductive.
This isn’t to say we don’t need mentors. Having mentors — both those we know in real life and those whose work we read — is critical. It is a rookie, even arrogant move to think we can optimally grow as teachers with our doors shut and our minds isolated (I’ve made that move). We need to ask genuine questions of our colleagues; we need to invite the voices of teacher-thinkers into our professional lives through reading books and blogs. Knives don’t sharpen themselves on air.
Yet at the same time, we’re believing a lie when we think that us doing things exactly the way Rafe Esquith or Penny Kittle does them is the key to being a great teacher. The longer I’m in this job, the more I think that the key to being a great teacher is a Never Finished mindset toward professional excellence combined with a determination to figure out who we are and what that person looks like as a teacher.
In short, this project has taught me to learn from the Rafes and Jims and Kellys and Smokeys of the world without falling into the unconscious trap of wanting to become them.
2. No distractions are more dangerous than the ones we’re most fond of
Right now my wife and I are going through the process of using Warren Buffet’s “Two List” strategy (thank you, James Clear, for introducing me to that idea) to ensure we’re not just working hard to build flourishing lives, but that we’re working hard on the right work.
If you and I are to accomplish the dreams we have, we need to be picky. Not every dream can come true — but a few really can, if we view the other ones as the distractions they are. The coding project didn’t seem like a distraction at the time I initiated it — it was just a cool idea, one I felt was a “no brainer” — but it was, indeed a distraction.
I would love to have the world’s greatest classroom library — but the time spent getting the books, organizing the books, managing the books, and reading the books would need to come from somewhere. It would not just magically spawn from rocks.
I would love to take kids on mind-blowing trips across the country or produce a Shakespearean play with students — but it would come at a steep time cost.
In short: If we want to achieve greatness in something, we have to pick what that will be. This blog has allowed me to prove to myself that big dreams are possible with the right amount of hard work, focus, and grace — and it’s also teaching me, month by month, that achievement comes at the cost of saying “no” to things you might be very fond of.
3. Excellence requires commitment, and commitment is easier in the imagining than it is in the doing
It is a humble thing to admit that we can’t keep adding things onto our plate and expect them to all be done with the quality they deserve. The fact is that had I put 100% of my focus into this coding challenge, it could have been incredible. I could have literally changed kids’ lives through this.
But I am coming to peace with the idea that I am not willing to attempt to be all things to all people. I do not want to be the teacher who builds a thriving Computer Science club on the side of writing helpful things for teachers on the side of teaching world history and English. I do not want to be that teacher, not because he isn’t amazing, but rather because he gives up a full life for the sake of his ideas and many passions. I want to be in real life with my wife, to develop real relationships with my children, to resist the idea that teachers cannot leave work at the door when they come home for the evening.
Many of our students come to us with expectations we cannot fill except at great cost; they need us to be father figures, or brother figures, or intensive life coaches, or counselors. I could fill these roles for many students — that is an option — but it would come at the price of filling these roles for my own family.
The point is simple: I am going to be great at a few things in my life; if Stephen Hawking can become a world-renowned physicist with ALS, then I can become a great teacher and writer and dad. But I’m done fooling myself into thinking I can be great at everything or that I ought to pursue all the ideas that come into my head.
IV. The Way Forward
As I sat there in my classroom on Google Saturday, my wife and children traveled down to my hometown for the day to visit with my mom, step-dad, and siblings. When I got back home that night and heard from my daughters how their day was with Grammy and Uncle Ben and their cousin Riley, it was like a neon sign was in the air: Dave, you’ve got to start realizing that choices aren’t made in vacuums; you can’t say yes without saying no, whether you like it or not. Picking this coding project wasn’t just picking this coding project; it was saying, “No,” to a day with my family, to an investment in relationships I aim to have my whole life.
In closing, I hope this post invites you not just to learn from (and avoid) my missteps, but to see that even our failures provide fertile soil for growth into the teachers we always hoped to be. Failure, it turns out, is so often a gift.