I stood, staring at the wall, slightly downward towards the baseboards. My gaze was blank, and I could feel blood rushing up to my face. I was exasperated, overwhelmed, and a little bit panicked. I saw my entire class crumbling before my eyes, the room in disarray, and off-task, directionless children milling about the room. As a teacher, this is, quite possibly, one of the worst feelings in the world — when you feel like you’ve lost control, when you feel like you’ve failed your students.
But regardless of how I was feeling, that is precisely what happened to me yesterday.
I had come to terms with the fact that I was underwater, that I was in over my head leading a maker class for the first time ever. Sure, I have the upper elementary teaching experience, and yes, I tried to help the kids project plan through calendaring, but this level of individualized project management became incredibly challenging and a tad overwhelming, to the point where I felt I was unable to support my students in their efforts to move along, step-by-step, through their projects.
Initially, what I had tried to avoid was micro-managing. I didn’t want to be the one who guided their process; I wanted them to be the ones who charted their own path, and I thought through simple documentation, some student-created and -monitored calendars, and a plethora of materials, that they’d be able to handle it. But what it had resulted in was a lack of structure and disorganization. They needed more than I had provided, but I came to this realization a bit too late, as I felt the class slipping away from me yesterday.
“I feel like I’m failing right now,” I turned and said to my co-teacher for the week.
It had been my job to set up the structure and create the plans the week before, and clearly what I had planned wasn’t up to snuff. My co-teacher helped me prioritize, re-think some structures, and overall, calm myself down while the kids were eating snack.
The tricky thing about failure, especially in the context of a classroom, is that when we see the disarray, and when we see our students not being successful, the weight of our failure begins to feel much stronger than that any other failure. It feels so heavy that you have no choice, at times, to reach out, to ask for help, and to have someone else share the load. Luckily enough, I was already scheduled to have one of our maker experts come to our class in the afternoon to help out.
“Thank god you’re here,” I said to her when she arrived over lunch.
I proceeded to explain all of the various projects to her: the places where I was utterly confused on what to do and the various goals for the week. Within minutes, my shoulders relaxed, my anxiety quelled, and suddenly the task of running this class became much more manageable. I asked her questions about when to step in, about what the right amount of failure was that we should be letting students experience, and strategies for wrangling some very ambitious projects, all in an effort to have students ready for our exhibition on Friday.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t too focused on the product of the kids’ learning. I understand that making and tinkering are incredibly process-heavy, but my main concern was that there would simply be no product — at all — if things continued the way they did.
We closed our brief conversation with a simple action plan: teach the children about kanban boards, an organizational system developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, some years ago. While I had created and monitored calendars with my students in the prior days and weeks, this kanban board added a layer that I had missed. It gave the students a tool to help them break the entirety of their projects down as a group and process completed pieces together, as opposed to giving each of them their own calendars. Within minutes, I felt like my classroom became a well-oiled machine once again. Students were industrious, I felt confident, and the structures my maker-friend had given us made all of us feel safer and more secure (myself included).
While I was able to learn about kanban boards and have some of my questions answered about this previously uncharted territory, I don’t think those lessons were the strongest that I learned yesterday. Instead, the most salient lesson that came out of this heavy failure was the importance of having a strong network of teachers and friends, each with varying specialties, so that we can lean on each other in those moments of failure.
The task of educating our youth is a big one, and we can never expect others or ourselves to do it in isolation. We simply can’t always carry the weight on our own. And so, in those times when we feel ourselves failing, we have no choice but to reach out and find somebody to lean on. Yesterday, I fell straight to the ground, drowning in the flood of my own plans and misconceptions about the maker classroom. But, with a little bit of empathy and a helping hand, I was pulled out from underneath the water, met directly at my level of need, and given the supports needed to not only succeed in my teaching, but to learn something new.