## The Pencil Problem

In my recent post, “Confessions of a Schadenfraud,” I promised to tell you some stories of my epic failures so far in my new job.  A recent Twitter thread reminded me of a struggle that many teachers have – and I admit that I’ve been kind of “judgey” about it in the past.

Now the first thing, I should say is that, if you have a self-contained class, you probably have a great method that works for you to make sure that students always have the supplies they need.  I’m pretty sure that there is a mathematical formula that shows that the number of disappearing pencils in any given classroom is proportional to the number of students who move in and out of your classroom each day.

In my previous role as a pull-out teacher for gifted and talented students, the solution was simple.  No one brought anything to my class, and no one left with anything.  I provided the supplies, and they stayed there.  There were still a few that got sucked up by a Black Hole, but a few packs of pencils would usually last a month or two.

When I saw the frequent Twitter debates admonishing teachers for being frugal with pencils, I would usually shrug.  “What’s the big deal?  Just give the kid a pencil.  We all forget sometimes.”

No one told me that secondary students eat pencils.

At my new school, the students carry their backpacks everywhere (not my decision).  It does not seem unreasonable to expect that there might be a pencil or two included in the depths of these bags that often include contents like hand sanitizer, multiple earbuds, phones, smelly shoes, Takis, and slime.

Pencils, however, appear to be of low priority in the life of a teenager.

We keep a 3d printed pencil holder in the maker space next to the pencil sharpener.  I think it might hold maybe 24 pencils.  If we fill it at the beginning of the day, they are gone by the last period.

When I say, “gone,” I am including the ones that have been snapped in half and left carelessly on the floor.

Realizing that this was not a sustainable solution, but determined to have pencils available for those who needed them, I searched the web for ideas.  This particular one seemed viable.  I felt like a lot of students were forgetting they had borrowed pencils, and were leaving the room with them accidentally; this could solve that problem.

I  wrote, “Makerspace” on  8 bright orange cards, numbered them, duct taped them to popsicle sticks that I then duct taped to the pencils.

My co-teacher, who has been at the school for a few years, watched this process with amusement.

“You don’t think this is going to work, do you?” I asked.

“It could,” she said, without any conviction whatsoever in her voice.

Whether or not it “worked” depends on your definition of success in this area…

I explained to the students that I was not trying to embarrass them or make them stand out when they borrowed a pencil.  I also said that I knew they weren’t deliberately stealing them when they took them out of the room.  I just wanted the tags to remind them to put them back in the holder before they left.

During the first couple of days, only one pencil completely disappeared.  Though I was somewhat disturbed by the probable deliberate theft of a pencil, I considered this to be an overall victory.

My sense of accomplishment did not last long, however.

My big mistake, apparently, was to render the erasers of these pencils unusable.  Past experience had shown me that pencil erasers lasted even less time than pencils (the students like to pop them off just for fun, among other things) so I didn’t think it would be a big deal to cover them up.  Since most of our writing in the class wasn’t formal, I figured crossing things out would be fine.

Silly me.

“I can’t erase with this pencil,” one student complained.

“That’s okay.  Just cross out your mistake with a line.  No big deal.”

“But I don’t want to cross it out.  I want to erase it.”

“But, as you just pointed out, you can’t use the eraser on that pencil, so crossing it out is the next best thing,” I said.

“I don’t want to just cross it out,” was the stubborn answer.

“I guess you could ask a friend to borrow their eraser,” I suggested.

“That’s too much trouble,” she responded.

“Okay, I’m not sure what you want me to do.  If erasers are that important to you, maybe you could bring one tomorrow.” (As soon as I said that last sentence, I felt guilty.  Stupid Terri, maybe she can’t afford supplies!)

“Oh, I have one.  It’s in my backpack.”

“You. Have. An. Eraser. In. Your. Backpack?” I asked, allowing myself to be swept even further into this no-win conversation.  Her backpack was about 6 feet away from her.

“Yes, I have a pencil with an eraser in my backpack,” she said with obvious frustration at my slowness.  “But I’m not going to go get it.  That’s too much work.”

At this point, I decided this conversation was too much work and that I better go help another student before I lost my mind.

Of course, after the students switched classes that day, I found one of our labeled pencils snapped in half.  Which still didn’t make the eraser accessible, but I guess seemed easier than expressing her righteous anger in a more productive way.

After that, it took about two weeks for the rest of the pencils to disappear or spontaneously fracture into multiple pieces.  Certainly an improvement on our previous record, but disheartening anyway.  To give her credit, my co-worker, said, “They lasted longer than usual, at least,” instead of, “I told you so.”

Now I feel like a true idiot for criticizing teachers who made such a big deal about giving students pencils.  So many of us want to give the students the benefit of the doubt (they just forgot, some of them can’t afford them, etc…) – but we forget to give the teachers the benefit of the doubt.  Most of us aren’t crabby Mrs. Umbridges who expect our students to be perfect.  We walk the line between accommodating them and helping them to become more responsible every day.

By the way, as I explained in my Schadenfraud post, these stories are not meant to elicit sympathy or advice (trust me – I have thoroughly researched ways to solve the case of the evaporating pencils and there is no perfect solution).  My goal is for you to take pleasure in my mistakes, so you can be less judgmental of your own 🙂

You know you’ve felt it.  I feel it all of the time.  I felt it a few hours ago when I read about how Chrissy Tiegen publicly enlightened Kim Kardashian that she’s a bit late in hitching a ride on the Bird Box bus.  But I don’t know either one of them, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t hurt Kardashian’s feelings that I’m laughing at her.  So, I have no problems admitting that, yes, I am delighted to learn that one of our pop culture icons isn’t completely caught up on pop culture.

But when I feel schadenfreude about friends or co-workers, I feel evil and guilty.  And, because my new job has been particularly challenging these last 6 months, I have been having those feelings a lot.  Probably not as much as I’d like to, if I’m being honest.  Because when I’m not deriving pleasure from the problems of other teachers, I am berating myself for all of my own failures.  And that doesn’t feel too great either.

I try to be honest on the blog for precisely those reasons.  I want to share good ideas so other people can try them, but social media tends to paint an unrealistic picture.  I’ve had people tell me that they admire me or wish they could be even half as good as I am at teaching, and that worries me.  Because I’m really not that great.  The only teachers I’m better than are the ones who don’t care about their students – and that’s a really low percentage despite public perception.

But, like most people, I do have a hard time publicly acknowledging my mistakes.  First, because – IDIOT!  And second, because I am not trying to garner sympathy or advice.  Most of the time, I know exactly what I did wrong and I’m already on a potential road to recovery.

I work with a lot of amazing teachers.  It’s pretty intimidating, to be honest.  But when one of them says, “Oh yeah, I went home crying the other night because of how bad my 3rd period class was,” I don’t just feel schadenfreude.  I feel relief.  And I am not reveling in that person’s pain.  I feel terrible for her.  But I also feel a little less terrible – about my teaching.

But more terrible about myself as a person.

Such is the complicated emotion of schadenfreude.

So, I just want to let you know that I am going to give you the gift of schadenfreude a little bit more often this year. Not because I feel the need to whine or vent.  But because I want to give you the guilt-free opportunity to laugh at my misfortunes and tell yourself, “Hah!  At least I didn’t do that today!”

## BreakoutEdu for the Win

My usual bag of tricks has not been extremely successful at my new school, especially in my engineering classes.  I didn’t bank on the fact that middle/high schoolers don’t want to appear interested even if they are – and most things that I have to share with them are apparently not even worth sitting around and appearing disinterested, judging by the steady stream of students asking to go to the bathroom.

I even tried the Hour of Code with a group.  But nothing I said could convince them that making games might be just as, if not more, fun than playing them.

It has definitely been a bit humbling.  Sometimes depressing.  Often humiliating.  I’m still trying to convince a lot of these students they can trust me, and they become immediately suspicious whenever I introduce something new into the mix.

Our high school students went on a trip last week, so the 8th graders were stuck with me.  I assumed (correctly) that they were not going to want to “work” (their current tortuous project is to design something in Tinkercad) while their classmates were kayaking.  So, I decided to try a BreakoutEdu with them.

I chose a fairly simple challenge since I knew most of the students had never done one before.  And I dangled the idea of a reward at the end. (A couple of chocolate candy Kisses)

I had two goals for them: collaboration and perseverance.

As I set them free to look for clues, I waited with bated breath for the inevitable, “This is too hard,” or, “This is boring.”

It didn’t happen.

The challenge took them about 30 minutes.  Nobody fought.  Nobody gave up.  Nobody surreptitiously kept taking out a phone to check Snapchat.

And no one asked to go to the bathroom.

After they finished, and we were reflecting as a class, one student said, “This is a great way to learn.  Every teacher should do this!”

But the kicker came from one of my other students, someone who always tries to figure out what’s in it for her before she applies any effort.

“Can we do this again?” she asked.  “And you don’t even have to give us a reward,” she promised me. As she popped a candy Kiss into her mouth.

Now. That. Is. Huge.

Crazy Teacher Takes New Job

## Officially Out of My Comfort Zone

Pretend you have worked for the same company for 27 years.  You know the company’s procedures and idiosyncracies, the people to contact when you need something done or have a question, and many of the employees.

Then you get a job with a new company.

You miss half the training because you already scheduled two weeks of vacation that worked with your old job calendar but completely interfere with the new one.  You go from serving clients ages 5-11 to ones who are 9-18.  You have to learn new passwords for ten different systems, the majority of which you don’t even know their use. You just doubled your number of co-workers, which means you doubled the number of people you don’t know.  The acronyms are different (some are the same so you get excited that you actually know something – but they mean different things), you can’t find the parking lot, you don’t have a place for any of the supplies you spent years accumulating, and within a week of starting you are supposed to take a test that will basically determine whether or not you get to keep your job.  And now you are not just serving people but you are also scoring them – and those scores might make a difference in the rest of their life.  And the picture you took for your new badge really sucks.

Fun, right?

On one of the few days I managed to attend training for my new job at the Advanced Learning Academy, we were asked to share something we accomplished this summer. I said, “I got my dream job.”  I know it doesn’t sound like it after looking at all of the challenges I just described, but I’m going to stick to that statement.  It has been an anxiety-ridden and humbling journey so far, but I still get up excited to go to work each day.

What exactly is my job?  Good question, glad you asked.  Officially, my title is STEAM Master Teacher.  I work with another teacher in our school Makerspace, collaborate with other teachers, and teach courses that range from Game Design (with 4th and 5th graders) to Principles of Engineering (8th-11th grades).  Our school, Advanced Learning Academy, is an “in-district charter”, which basically means that I still work for a public school district, but we do lots of innovative things.  The campus I am on is a high school campus (where we serve 4th-12th; PK-3rd are in another building) that also houses two other magnet schools.

My biggest challenge right now (besides learning carpentry and trying not to get lost) is classroom management.  My style has always depended on relationships, and many of my students had me several years in a row in my previous job as a GT teacher.  Forging relationships with K-5th grade students is a lot different than trying to develop them with teenagers.  Last week I went from laughing and adoring my first period of teenagers to wanting to come home and hide under a rock after my second period.  It’s amazing how quickly everything you’ve learned in 27 years goes right out the window when a student talks back to you before he has even gotten the chance to learn how invested you are in his success.  Not that it never happened with my elementary kids – but I’m pretty sure it never happened within the first 15 minutes I met them.

I have had to ask more questions and request more advice in the last two weeks than I probably have in the last 10 years of my career combined.  Like most people, I am very uncomfortable in situations where I feel ignorant. That’s basically been my feeling since I agreed to take this job.  Extended periods of ignorance are even more stressful.

Now I get to test out what I’ve been telling my students for so long – with experience and practice we improve.  Learn from failure and make the appropriate adjustments.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Don’t get into power struggles with teenagers in a room full of saws and hammers.

Okay, I don’t think I ever explicitly mentioned the last one, but you must admit that it’s good advice.