I believe in failure.
I believe in taking an intellectual risk and falling flat on my face.
I believe in taking something apart in order to learn how to put it back together the right way through a process of putting it back together the wrong way first.
I believe in failing by doing something you shouldn’t have and learning the hard way why you shouldn’t have done it.
I failed today.
I did the wrong thing and had it go as badly as it possibly could have.
Even so, it may have been the best thing I’ve ever done in my continuingly evolving struggle to connect with my 8th grade social studies class.
My school, like the rest of the schools of the New York City Department of Education, has an ironclad rule against students using personal electronic devices like games and cell phones no matter how smart they are. This was repeated to us in a staff meeting after school yesterday.
Please don’t respond to this post with information on how the computers students all carry in their pockets can be utilized in the classroom. I’ve heard it. I believe it. I just can’t convince the NYCDOE to change their policies. I’ve tried.
So here’s what happened.
I’m in the middle of teaching my eighth grade social studies class, a class I’ve had a lot of difficulty engaging.
It is sixth period, right after lunch, usually the worst period of the day for all teachers.
For a change, my usually extremely rowdy class is actually working at creating cost-benefit analyses of the late 19th – early 20th Century investment NYC made to build schools.
I’m walking around the room, checking progress, helping enhance understanding and all that good teacher stuff, and then I spot it.
Way in the back, where the rowdiest students sit, it is strangely quiet. Two of the boys seem to be staring into their lap, the sure sign they are looking at a verboten screen.
I can move surprisingly quickly and quietly for a big guy and I’m on them in a flash.
This is where I make my big mistake.
I reach down and try to snatch the phone out of the hands of the boy holding it.
In the process the phone flies and breaks when it hits the floor.
The boy who was holding the phone was distraught; it turns out the phone isn’t his.
I calm him and say what turns out to be the magic words:
“I take responsibility for my actions. I will pay to replace the phone.”
I say it again.
I tell the boy to go tell the assistant principal what happened.
I repeat my pledge to replace the phone to him, and he tells me to go talk to the principal.
I tell him that I will replace the phone and he tells me what I already knew: I screwed up when I tried to grab the phone.
He warned me not to do it again, I assured him I wouldn’t and returned to my class.
I walked back to that back group and the boy who was holding the phone said, “Are you really going to pay for it?”
I repeated that I take full responsibility for my actions and that I would pay for the phone.
For the rest of the day, different students wandered into my room and asked me to repeat what I had said.
Each time they shook their heads and looked at me with a mixture of awe and puzzlement.
Finally, two kids came to me and pulled me aside.
“People think what you did was dumb but what you are doing about it is awesome.”
Then they shook my hand and walked out.
Cost of the phone: $200
Benefits from the screw-up: immeasurable.