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Response: Make Teaching Failures 'Moments to Grow'

(This is the second post in a multi-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What was the most difficult moment of your teaching career and what did you learn from it?

In Part One,  Lorena Germán, Tom Rademacher, Diana Laufenberg, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, and Jeff Bradbury shared their stories. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Lorena and Tome on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, N. Chaunte Garrett, Laura Robb, Jim Bentley, N. Chaunte Garrett, Jennifer Orr, and Jonathan Eckert contribute commentaries about their most difficult teaching experiences.

Response From N. Chaunte Garrett

N. Chaunte Garrett serves as the Chief Academic Officer for Rocky Mount Preparatory School, a consultant, and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. Her work in education includes curriculum and instruction, leadership, accountability, and school transformation. Connect with Garrett on Twitter @drncgarrett or on her blog:

I approached the counter of the McDonald's in the mall. I saw "her." I immediately recognized the choices this young person made; but there was no need for me to acknowledge them or give them further thought. It did not impact me.

As a teacher, I was preparing to administer the End-of-Course state assessment. In a very pretty dress and hair braided and pulled back to show off "her" earrings; she walked by my classroom door. I looked at my neighboring teacher, she was familiar with the student. With minutes before testing was set to begin, I went to my administrator, to share what I saw. My concern was that the young man dressed as a female would be a distraction during testing. My administrator explained the school had worked with the student and their family; this was a choice the student made. Baffled, I returned to my classroom and went on to administer the assessment. It still did not impact me.

School ended, summer came and the school doors opened for the following school year. I was standing at my door, and "she" walks by me, finds his name on the desk and takes his seat. My eyes grew large, I did not know how I was going to handle this:

How would the students react to this obvious choice? How do I keep them from being distracted? How do I address this student, as a he or a she? What bathroom does she use?

I collected my thoughts, closed my door and proceeded to teach and prayed that I never had to answer these questions; and truthfully, I never did.

My students were fine. They never acknowledged the choices their classmate made. In my advanced math class, she was one of the brightest minds. As I paid attention, I learned these students had history that included playing soccer together and other community activities. Students often relied on her for assistance. Within the school, she was leader. She was a member of numerous clubs, and for recreation would even teach dance classes in the morning while students were waiting for school to start. She was vital part of the school.

My students were fine. As an adult with many questions regarding the situation; my students were beautiful models of inclusion. And yes, it did impact me. I needed to make an adjustment. No matter my beliefs, it was not my job to decide whether she should live as a boy. It was simply my job to teach her. There is not a choice that she could make that would keep me from teaching her. When that student walked through the door; no matter what the gender, she became "mine." It was my responsibility to make her feel invited and included to learn and live. What if my beliefs kept me from seeing the gifts that were inside of this child? And what if my beliefs kept this child from sharing their gifts?

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Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author of Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts, Corwin, 2014 and published two books in 2016: The Intervention Toolkit for Shell and for Corwin, Read Talk Write:35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction:

My teaching career started in September 1963. My husband and I had moved from New York City to Winchester, Virginia, after he accepted a job there. I had been working as a copywriter for an ad agency, but Winchester didn't have an ad agency. So, at my husband's urging, I took a job teaching sixth grade in an elementary school in Gainesboro, Virginia, replacing the principal's wife who was on medical leave. That made me the only teacher not related to the principal.

Gainesboro was a poor, rural community. Some of the children's parents worked in the principal's peach factory while others worked on his land as tenant farmers.  As such, most families were beholden to the principal for earning enough money to feed and clothe their children.

From the first day, the principal and I were at odds. Corporal punishment was thriving at the school; teachers were equipped with a whip or a paddle or both. When both first appeared on my desk, I promptly returned them to the principal's office. That action started the yearlong battle between the principal and me. Every morning when I arrived at school, I'd find a whip and paddle on my desk, and I promptly returned them.

My twenty-eight students were shocked that I didn't keep and use the whip or paddle. They peppered me with questions:  "Weren't you ever whipped at home? At School? Why don't you believe in whipping?" They seemed fascinated by what they feared. If they heard a child in another class screaming while being whipped or paddled, they turned shades of gray, sat stiff as toy soldiers, and when the screams subsided sighed deeply. Yet, they wanted me to keep the whip and paddle in our classroom.

I explained that I didn't believe in corporal punished. Instead, I preferred to talk to a student who "broke" a rule and negotiate changes in their behavior. My students looked at me suspiciously, I believe because I came from "the big city."  However, neither their reactions nor the principal's persistence changed my mind about hitting students. As winter approached, my students' fascination with the daily ritual of returning the whip and paddle to the principal's office waned. Thankfully, they became more interested in playing hoops at recess, watching The Flintstones on TV, and wishing for snow days.

Their wish came true. Just before Christmas break, a storm dropped more than foot of powdery snow on Winchester and Gainesboro. Two snow days later, my students returned to school dressed in heavy coats, which they hung in the closet and placed their boots on the floor. All except Wilbur.

Wilbur was close to six feet tall; he had repeated sixth grade twice. This year was his third time. Although a slow learner, Wilbur was making progress. He was reading at his instructional level, early fourth grade, instead of at his frustration level, which he had been doing since he entered sixth grade, thanks to the grade-level basal his former teacher had been using. Nonetheless, my other students didn't relate to Wilbur because he was older, much taller, and carried the stigma of repeating sixth grade three times. The result was that Wilbur had no friends. He stayed on the sidelines during recess, had no school social life, and refused to discuss his feelings with me. I totally understood his reluctance to talk but continued to try.

On that December morning Wilbur sat tight-lipped and silent each time I gently asked him to put his coat and boots in the closet. Finally, I walked over to his desk, intending to do it for him. Quite suddenly, he stood up, punched me in the face, and decked me. While I was out cold, some students went for the principal who suspended Wilbur for a week, ignoring my pleas to reconsider the punishment. I felt that I was at fault more than Wilbur. Being a first year teacher, I lacked the experience to know that I should not have tried to force Wilbur to obey me. As I reflect on this story, I'm aware of the irony: I did not believe in corporal punishment, yet a student who couldn't find the words to express his inner turmoil punched me.

That year, I matured as a teacher and learned three important lessons from Wilbur and my principal.

  1. Always respect a student's response and space, and don't box yourself into a stance from which you can't retreat. I quickly learned to respect a student's feelings and never push a student to obey a request, especially when he or she is hurting, confused, unhappy, or as in Wilbur's case, embarrassed and lonely.

  2. Repeating a grade once doesn't work. Repeating a grade three times not only doesn't work, it is harmful to the student because socialization become a huge issue, one that affects his or her self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of belonging. Progress can be made through careful interventions and scaffolds as well as by providing additional support during the day and in after school programs.

  3. Don't compromise your values. Stand firm. I escalated the principal's anger and frustration by daily returning his whip and paddle. For me, both were symbols of control, power, and daily corporal punishment to gain students' compliance. Much better to negotiate positive and productive behavior through conversations. Maybe, if I had kept the whip and paddle in the classroom and not initiated the daily battle of wills, the principal would have listened to me when I asked for a more lenient punishment for Wilbur. I'll never know.

Making mistakes has helped me learn throughout life. The mistakes I made during that first year of teaching transformed me into an advocate for students. Throughout my teaching career, I have opposed retention because all too often, the student experiences the same ineffective curriculum and teaching methods that deterred his or her progress in the first place. Moreover, the stigmatization a student inevitably faces can affect him or her throughout life.

I did not return to Gainesboro Elementary at the end of the school year. The principal didn't want me to return, and neither did I! Though the district wanted to place me in a different school, I moved to Powhatan School, a K to 8 Independent school in Boyce, Virginia. I accepted a position teaching fifth grade and remained there for more than forty years.

During my year at Gainesboro Elementary School, I developed a mantra I still embrace as I continue to teach and coach and train teachers in the United States and Canada: At the end of each day, I have to live with my words and actions and feel at peace with them.

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Response From Jim Bentley

Jim Bentley teaches a 5th-6th grade loop in the Elk Grove Unified School District. He is a Buck Institute for Education National Faculty, a CueRockstar Faculty, a national trainer for the Center for Civic Education, and a project based learning teacher. Jim blogs for P21.org, BIE.org, The Right Question Institute, and has contributed to books on deeper learning and teacher effectiveness. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Curiosity_Films:

Almost 17 years ago on the Friday before spring break during my second year of teaching, I was called into my principal's office. The principal-who was also the superintendent of the small, single-school district composed of 15 staff and about 300 students-informed me that I had been doing an great job as a new teacher, but he was being pressured by a single school board member to not re-elect me. I was being given the chance to retire with dignity and to keep my resume "clean."

Finishing that school year was the single-most difficult moment in my teaching career.

Each day I came to work knowing I would not be a part of a staff or a school the following year. My colleagues didn't know. My students didn't know. It was a terrible burden, and I went through a medley of feelings: anger, depression, insecurity, helplessness.

I was a second year teacher, energetic, trying innovative things. I sought collaborations between local news meteorologists and the National Weather Service to integrate science throughout the study of weather. I revamped an old marine sciences unit and designed a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I reached out to volcanologists at the nearby California State University to elevate our study of earth sciences. I partnered with our county's Health and Human Services Department to integrate reading, writing, and tobacco use prevention education. We had a former NFL player and search and rescue dogs visit our class. My county office of education recognized me as a "Teacher Who Makes a Difference." And yet I lost my job.

For the next dozen years I worked double-time to ameliorate that scarlet letter I carried around in the back of my mind. I sought professional development opportunities, took classes, read books on teaching, and reached out to mentors who I looked up to. I became a district reading, writing, and math trainer. I discovered my passion for integrating writing, civics, filmmaking, and project based learning. I became a nationally certified trainer for the Center for Civic Education, a National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, a Teacher Ambassador for CalRecycle's Education and the Environment Initiative, a Newsela Certified Educator. I started working on my Google certification, as I published chapters in books related to project based learning and prosocial behavior and blogged for organizations like P21.org, Getting Smart.com, and the Buck Institute for Education blog. I've done a lot to grow as a teacher.

And 17 years after losing that first teaching job what I've come to realize: failure is a natural part of teaching. It's how we rebound that matters most.

Yes, I got a lot of things right, but I also couldn't accept at the time that I had in fact failed to adequately meet the needs of that school board member's child. He was gifted. I was unprepared. I let that student down. Was it a fireable offense? In hindsight, probably not. I needed support in how to work with gifted and talented students. Terminating my contract did not provide me the tools that were missing. I can forgive that board member for her actions now. And most importantly I can forgive myself, too.

I've learned that to succeed as a teacher, we must be willing to be vulnerable, to seek guidance, to let go of ego. At a recent Buck Institute for Education summit, Dr. Juancarlos Arauz shared an observation related to fostering an equity mindset toward our students. He said when a student might be labeled as "failing" we shouldn't ask what's wrong, but seek to understand what's missing. We shouldn't emphasize helping a child "improve"-since that implies a deficit or lack of worth-but seek strategies to promote "growing" a student's repertoire of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.  

Failure will happen. Rather than take it personally, make it a moment to grow. You'll be a happier and more skilled teacher in the long run.

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Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr teaches kindergartners at a public, Title I school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader, blogs at jenorr.com, and is @jenorr on twitter. She feels lucky to have a job she loves:

Not surprisingly, eighteen years of teaching has meant there have been plenty of difficult moments. Most of them I learned from, I hope. Looking back over that time brings a variety of emotions, some joyful, some pained, and some embarrassed.

Some years ago I was teaching first graders. It was a rough year for me for a variety of reasons, no small part of which were a few students whose needs were greater than I had anticipated or felt capable of addressing well. Midway through the year things were finally getting rolling smoothly and I was beginning to feel good about our community, our learning, and our future.

Then a student who had been doing fine all year, outgoing, cheerful, excited about learning, suddenly became a different person. She was clearly unhappy and uncomfortable and I and other teachers who knew her well did not understand why. After a short period of this, her mother shared with us that this young girl had been sexually assaulted multiple times by someone who had been staying in their home. Mom handled the immediate issue well as soon as her daughter told her what was happening. It was the ongoing issues that were far tougher.

As a school we immediately mobilized on behalf of this child. As for me, I turned to others with the expertise I lacked. Our school counselors, social worker, and psychologist all helped me determine the best ways to support this child. Every other day I called her mother to discuss how she was doing outside of school and to be another source of support for the mother.

I don't know how this story ends as I don't know how that young woman is doing now. I feel comfortable that we did our best for her in the time she was with us (she moved to another school after second grade). But whether or not that was enough I will probably never know.

I do know that experience changed me as a teacher. I have always believed in the importance of building relationships with students and that belief was strongly reinforced. The importance of building relationships with families was something I recognized but did not actively pursue in the way I should have. Since that year, my relationships with families have taken a far higher priority and it has made a huge difference, I believe, for many of my students and definitely for me.

Children are so much more than their academic learning. Getting to know them well and allowing them to know you is a critical part of being a teacher. I believe that is true all the time, but it is especially important when students are facing trauma.

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Response From Jonathan Eckert

Jonathan Eckert is the author of The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher and is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College. He earned a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow in the Bush and Obama administrations, and taught outside of Chicago and Nashville for 12 years:

My hair was parted perfectly down the middle and pulled back like curtains on my forehead. Large silver braces enhanced my smile. I wore thick, industrial glasses that could have doubled as shop goggles. On top of my striking appearance, I was painfully shy and awkward around anyone who was cooler than me. By my estimation, that was almost everyone.

This was the 13-year-old version of me. I never wanted to go anywhere near middle school again. In fact, I was quite happy to continue teaching 5th grade students for the rest of my career. I was very comfortable at the school where I had student taught and spent the first eight years of my teaching career. As all teachers know, it takes time to earn a good reputation with parents and colleagues. Once that reputation is established, life gets a lot easier.

However, my family and I were considering moving to another state, and the job that was available was 7th grade science.

Would I go back to the mercurial and hormonal world of middle school?

Adding to the angst of my own trying middle school experiences as a student, I received the following words of encouragement from colleagues:

"Middle school was the worst."

"Are you crazy?"

"Middle school .... Really?"

Not exactly ringing endorsements.

I had spent 16 years avoiding all things middle school, but I decided to jump back into a seventh grade science lab complete with lab stations and gas hookups.

My first day back in seventh grade, now as a teacher in my ninth year of teaching, had me feeling a lot more like an uncertain seventh grader than a veteran teacher. My stomach felt a bit like I had just consumed a middle school cafeteria lunch at 7:00 in the morning.

Although not a comfortable place to be, these feelings of uncertainty, awkwardness, and newness, provided an empathetic window into the inner lives of my students.

While I did almost burn down the lab, I was never disappointed by the wonderfully warped seventh grade mind. In many instances, I realized that my own sense of humor had not progressed much beyond seventh grade. Additionally, I found many moments contained incidental comedic value of which my students were not even aware. Just ask any middle school teacher if you need examples.

After eight years of teaching, being new and vulnerable provided me a great opportunity to grow. Great teachers ask their students to take vulnerable risks every day. We should expect no less from ourselves. My students and I grew so much together. I gained tremendous respect for their ability to struggle and learn through a challenging life phase. This was an encouragement to me to continue to develop my own gritty optimism grounded in the reality of what students can do. My recent book highlights the benefits of being a novice over the course of our careers.

Parker Palmer writes, "In truth I am a novice in every new moment of the day, each of which presents possibilities unknown and untried."

We need to keep trying new things - maybe even middle school...

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Thanks to N. Chaunte, Laura, Jim, Jennifer and Jonathan for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

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Parent Engagement In Schools

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Education Policy Issues

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Math Instruction

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Professional Development

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days...

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