I Screw Up & Come Out Ahead

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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.

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14 Responses to I Screw Up & Come Out Ahead

  1. I really enjoyed meeting you tonight. I will never forget what you said on the panel tonight. The goal of an education is not about finding the right answer, it is learning to ask better questions.

    I am moved by the above example, what powerful thought and teaching by example.

  2. Ira Socol says:

    The apology – and taking responsibility for your actions – is one of the greatest lessons adults can teach children, but schools always do the opposite (see Lower Merion School District for best current example – lying and hiding).

    I once asked my son’s Elementary School to apologize to the students for creating an 11-period fifth grade program that left all the kids in hopeless chaos for 2 months. They changed the schedule, but of course denied that it was a mistake and refused to apologize. In fact one (unfortunate) parent told me that “adults should never apologize to children.”

    Of course when those fifth graders grew up they were a group constantly violating not just rules, but laws, and were completely unrepentant – as they had been trained to be by their teachers and parents (we’d changed schools long before that).

    So thank you. You were pushed into a mistake by the idiotic policies of a clueless mayor and evil “school boss.” You even had plausible deniability. But you acted like an adult.

    The kids in your school got a special gift today. The world will literally be better for this lesson.

  3. Joan Young says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. The power of taking responsibility is priceless. Your students and those that follow will now know you by your example and see you in a new light. I am sure they had respect for you before, but you gained MAJOR points on this day. Thank you again for sharing and inspiring.

  4. Matt says:

    Great Job! Kids love sincerity and genuiness. Nothing builds rapport like owning up to mistakes to those “less powerful” than you.

  5. Steve Ransom says:

    We all make mistakes. We don’t all share them publicly. And, we don’t all make their right. I think that if more folks “righted” their mistakes with integrity, we’d have a school culture that embraces risk-taking (and required failure) more… and that includes students.

    Thanks for sharing by example.
    I won’t be tempted to snatch any cell phones now, either 😉

  6. April says:

    I love this!

  7. Amy says:

    You could not have handled it better – they will remember that for the rest of their lives and hopefully make similar gr8 decisions in similar hard times. Shoot – they may even remember cost / benefit analysis better! =) I’m proud that you are in my profession!

  8. Chris says:

    Your posts never fail to teach me something. This is a powerful lesson. Thank you for your strength and willingness to share.

  9. Scott McLeod says:

    Deven, thanks for the fantastic post. Great stuff.

  10. Deven,

    This is a brilliant post and I love what an impact you made. We will make mistakes as teachers, but how we deal with them really provides the example for our students. You have made a lasting impression that the students will keep in mind when a situation presents itself like this. That will help influence their decisions and you’re right that is priceless.

  11. Paula White says:

    That was probably the most powerful $200 you have ever spent. Talk about return on investment. . . . you have truly gotten that immeasurable return! Thanks for sharing–great modeling.

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