#lessonfail & Self-Doubt

I had a great conversation with Christy Pettis today, and amidst other recent conversations about how MTBoS is used by folks and why people do and do not get involved, it has me thinking.

I love MTBoS. It makes me a better teacher. But I do think we (including me) have some work to do around not appearing so perfect. We share a ton of good stuff, but don’t often share our fears nor failures in the classroom. (Although, perhaps I just need to look harder, as this was just shared with me on twitter.)

So I’m mostly just throwing my hat in the ring here. Committing to sharing my #lessonfails and fears about not being good enough.

What generally happens on the MTBoS (pronounced mitt-boss, don’t let people tell you otherwise), is that we share our best stuff and our most confident selves.  We share excellent lessons that went really well, and maybe even gloss over some of the parts of the lessons that didn’t go so well. I do that. I’m going to try to stop. (I have now gone back and fixed this in my Hidden Figures Discussion post.) Because it puts WAY TOO MUCH PRESSURE on us to be excellent 100% of the time. Even though we say, over and over and over again, that we’re all imperfect and we all make mistakes. If we don’t name and share those mistakes in detail, we’re making the community too intimidating to get involved in.

I’ve been involved in MTBoS for more than a year now, and I feel pretty comfortable here. A lot of that is because I know people. I have gotten affirmation that I’m a worthwhile member. I don’t (often) worry how I’m perceived because there’s a body of evidence about me out there. I have a blog, I have lots of tweets, I have an established relationship with many other MTBoSers that gives me a bit of a cushion to explore ideas in safety. I have a reasonable faith that should I say something monumentally stupid, people will give me the benefit of the doubt.

I also edit posts, tweets, likes and other stuff obsessively to make sure I don’t sound like a monumental idiot. I probably still do. This is because I am not immune from self-doubt amongst the MTBoS.

What I’m about to share is a pretty embarrassing story. Part of me wants to abandon this post because it reveals that I can be rather hysterical when I don’t have to be, but given the spirit of the post and that I promised others I would post about some fails and ugly moment, I suppose I had best get on with it. Allow me to be clear that this was a single episode, and that I felt very ridiculous the following day, but in the moment it was very real to me and potent in its distressing-ness. Maybe some of you have had similar episodes and this will help you know you’re not alone. Maybe the rest of you are far more well-adjusted than I and this will help you feel better because you’re not as hysterical as me. I dunno, but I’m sharing.

You see, I recently found myself crying inconsolably at my dining room table, having discovered I am an absolutely worthless teacher. Totally incompetent. Probably ruining my students lives. What brought me to this, you ask? Self-doubt about my ability to summarize lessons, and a belief that I am the only teacher in the world who can’t do this.

You see, I was attending the phenomenal Tracy Zager’s Global Math Department on #lessonclose. Allow me to admit it:

I. STINK. AT. SUMMARIZING. LESSONS. I get students thinking and then ask them to… write it down? Tell a neighbor? Share what they did? It always feels awkward and forced and I am almost never satisfied. It has never crossed my mind after a lesson, “Wow, that all came together really well! We totally wrapped that up!” Like… never. At best, sometimes I can think to myself, “Hey! Kids are really annoyed they don’t know the answer yet! I bet they keep thinking about it!”

So when I saw Tracy was hosting a webinar on lesson closing, I was over the moon. I was so excited that Tracy was sharing ideas. I was so excited that it was TRACY. You see, Tracy has taught me to be vulnerable. I feel totally safe sharing my incompetence with her. I was so pumped for this webinar.

Being the excessively open person that I am, I tried to respond in the chat box as honestly as I could. Right off the bat, Tracy shared two ideas that I read and thought, “huh, I could try those,” but then Tracy and everyone else started in on how obviously ridiculous they were. This was fine by me. Totally affirmed to me that I was in the right place. I needed this talk because I stink at closing lessons. I know this. I said so in the chat box:

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Boom. Was vulnerable. Admitted it in front of colleagues. +1 to me!

Tracy’s talk continued and she shared such excellent ideas. I am super grateful to her and everyone else attending. I am going to be a better teacher for learning from them and that’s why MTBoS is so awesome!

As the talk continued, even though Tracy said MANY TIMES, something to the effect of “I’m not perfect at this, we’re all learning together”, and everyone else in the chat said the same stuff, I still ended up crying over my laptop because I was so hysterically bad at my job. Let me be very clear here, before I continue, that this crying fit was not Tracy nor anyone else’s fault. I got nothing but supportive talk from her and everyone else there.

We were talking about a teacher Tracy had featured who was doing great work getting their students to take risks in class, which I would love to have more of in my classroom. So I jumped in:

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See that?! Everyone was so flipping helpful! Thank you guys! Seriously, I mean that.

The result of all this helpful talk was for me to spiral down into a pit of “oh my gosh I am so terrible at my job, all of these people know what they’re doing and I am still so flipping bad at this!” No one else was as bad as me.

(I should be clear here that when I woke up the next morning I felt completely foolish and realized that I really shouldn’t have gotten so upset. There is hope. I do stink at this, but I can get better and I just had a bunch of people share a ton of ideas that will help me with that.)

To be super clear, this crying fit happened because of me. No one else. And I got out of it by going to sleep (this fixes many things) and realizing I have the agency to change my crappy ability to close lessons.

When I think about MTBoS, I think about the excellent stuff I find there. The competent, confident people. Which is totally the point and I get that. But it would be nice if we had a bit more of, “I’ve been there, too.”

Based on the massive number of posts people are sharing with me on twitter about lessons fails right now, maybe I’m just plain wrong that we need more of this and I haven’t been using MTBoS correctly. Maybe you all are sharing these self-doubts and lesson fails and I just haven’t sought them out enough. I do think, however, that I can be part of the solution to my complaint and chime in more often to let people know about my flops and failures, especially when they’re sharing their own.

If nothing else, perhaps those reading this post will know that at some point, another teacher had an hysterical crying fit over something that they probably shouldn’t have, and maybe that will make them feel better about something they’re not feeling that great about.

After all the responses to the tweet I sent out earlier I’m significantly revising my impression that we don’t share fails on MTBoS, and part of me doesn’t want to post this post at all, but I told others that I would, so I’m going to, in the spirit of exposing my weaknesses, even if those are just about being wrong about how much people share failures.

Madison, Annie, and Ilona are fabulous people who are sharing failures among many others, and I SO appreciate their willingness to expose their imperfections. Here’s to more of that. Teaching is hard and we’re all in this boat together.

12 thoughts on “#lessonfail & Self-Doubt

  1. Oh, my, Annie! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I embarrassingly just joined Twitter a few months ago, and did so with the specific intention of interacting with MTBoS. I’d lurk, then timidly comment, then lurk some more. I found it hard to break through. I felt like an outsider, trying to join an elite group.

    Slowly, it’s become a bit easier to connect, but I have had that same reaction of feeling imperfect. Your sharing of similar feelings is validating, but also puts me on notice to be more vulnerable in the name of professional growth. Yes, teaching is hard. And none of us gets it right all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *Bear Hug!*

      You are so welcome here, Marian! We’re better for having you with us. Please keep participating.

      Like

  2. Oh man, this is beautifully said. Thank you for sharing your vulnerable moments. Teaching is such a humbling act. In April I was preparing for my ShadowCon talk on math play at NCTM. Right before giving this talk I had several excruciating teaching/coaching experiences that made me think, “Holy heck. Who am I to tell people about play in math?!” I spent an evening crying on my couch a week before that talk feeling bad for myself as a total fraud and all the people who would have to listen to me. Just like you, put myself to sleep. Woke up the next morning ready to get better and learn. It helps to know I’m not the only person who feels this way!

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  3. Hi Annie!
    So, I know this is a random contact, but I just wanted to point out that you might have a good reason for struggling with lesson closes. If you are trying to get students to be divergent, complex, and systematic in their thinking, then coming to a random convergent point, just for the sake of it, will feel inauthentic. I know this might seem weird, but what if the kids had a choice and they cultivated reflection/lesson closes as something they could be responsible for? I’m thinking of a list on the wall with all your best suggestions, and an overall grade once or twice a quarter to give them feedback about how they’re developing on it? Anyhow, I study digital media, making, and teacher learning now, and I love Mtbos! Also, I hope you’re doing so great!!

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  4. Chiming in because I’m often in the same boat. I have this nagging feeling in the back of my head that I’m a fraud, that I’m not really a good teacher, that there are all these kids that really aren’t progressing and aren’t feeling comfortable and another teacher would do it better. And who knows, maybe that is true? But there are also other teachers who do it worse, who don’t reflect, who don’t try to get better. Also, what is completely natural for one teacher may be an awkward and ineffective approach for another teacher to do.

    For me, what I’ve found is that I need to work on both the things that I’m comfortable with and the things that are hard for me in teaching, and I’ve also found that being open with my students has been helpful. When it comes to closings, it is something that I never did or valued as a student, so it was hard for me to buy into the idea of sharing with a neighbor or journalling or anything similar. Then I talked to students – we had a discussion about the purposes of a closing. What I found was that, after an honest discussion, many students do appreciate the time to collect their thoughts and reflect at the end of a lesson. I’ve taken to using Google Classroom for some of my classes to open a discussion thread based on a conceptual question from class. Students have a few minutes at the end of class where they can add to the thread, or they can add to it outside of class. Although I required it at first, I later made it optional. If anything, the participation increased.

    I know that we all have felt what you’re feeling, though. I’ve been teaching for 16 years now, and am questioning my methods and doubt my approaches as much as ever. But you’re right – I do in my blog and on Twitter what so many people do on Facebook – I present the lessons and questions and activities that I’m most proud of and that come across well, and I ignore the tantrums and the backfires and the total disasters of lessons and assessments and classroom management nightmares that a part of me would like to forget. Maybe I’ll change? I’d like to work on making myself vulnerable in the #MTBoS world, and let the world see my mistakes a bit more. (I can start with time management – replying on a blog at 12:30am when I still have grading to finish and submit by 9am and would really like to get some sleep but just need to procrastinate and what is wrong with me?)

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  5. Thank you for posting this. I also feel the weird self-doubt (about almost everything) that awesome people are already doing this work and my voice would just be mumbling in the crowd, but it just isn’t true. You’re voice rings true and clear here and I’m really thankful to hear my own thoughts put out there by someone else. It’s comforting. Last night and this morning on Twitter was encouraging to me. Ending the year is always hard and I’m glad to have you all to go through it together.

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  6. Pingback: My Biggest Fail… | MathLab

  7. This is another great post, and I’m still trying to sort through my reaction to all this. (I’ve already trashed my original comment, which I started writing last night.)

    The thing that I’m wondering is whether SHARING and THINKING in a blog post. In particular, I wonder if the “present a too-rosy picture of yourself”-problem comes up more when we’re sharing than when we’re thinking. (I think it might, but want to put the idea out here to see if anyone can set me straight.)

    It seems to me a hard ask to ask teachers to type up their failures, just for the sake of sharing failure. But the sort of posts we prefer (we? me? the MTBoS?) include thinking about actual problems of practice, with an emphasis on THINKING.

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    • I think you’re absolutely spot on: we’re more censoring of our mistakes when sharing and more open when thinking.

      I’m certainly not saying you should share anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Perhaps I should have been clearer on that front. Based on the deluge of reactions to this post (at least it’s been a deluge for me & my regular amount of twitter/blog interactions) it seems like this hit a nerve with a number of folk. People who either needed to hear that other people struggle or needed an opportunity/excuse to share their own stories of struggle.

      In general, I would say that the internet has basically hugged me in response. I needed that. So perhaps this was a selfish post in that regard (I’m fine with that).

      Maybe for people less eager to share their classroom failures, they could, indeed, share things they are thinking about – things they are not yet fully confident on. I would welcome it.

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  8. Pingback: Thank you for the #lessonfail | Wonder in Mathematics

  9. Thanks so much for this post! I feel like my two biggest deficit areas are lesson closing and classroom management! I totally understand the intimidation with MTBoS, I felt the same way! I felt totally confident commenting on posts and joining discussions, but the idea of coming up with my own posts/discussions was totally daunting, and I felt like I could never live up to it.

    I just authored my first blog post this evening, our math department is starting a lot of new things next year so I am sure there will be plenty of flops and fails! I will try my best to post them truthfully and not sugar coat them so maybe someone won’t wait as long as I did to start up a math blog themselves!

    Like

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