One of my favorite moments in the movie, The Replacements, is when Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) explains what he means when he says his greatest fear on the playing field is “quicksand.” Its that moment when one thing goes wrong. Then another. And another. And pretty soon you spend so much of your time trying to get out of trouble that it causes you to lose focus entirely.
Quicksand happens in sports. I’ve seen it happen to teachers when they are being evaluated. The technology doesn’t work right. A particular student disrupts the class…again. The worksheet needed for the lesson was left in the office…on the printer.
It happened to me last week.
I’m not speaking out of turn (I hope), because my boss knew I was interviewing for an elementary principal position in another district. A job I would really have loved. A job I did not get.
I walked into a committee of six for the interview. I knew them all except for the new Director of Schools. The Supervisor of Elementary, two elementary principals, someone from Special Education, and another from Title I (primarily) were on the committee. My mind immediately started thinking about the direction of questions from this particular group.
The first question out of the gate was a pretty straightforward, softball lob question to get things started. I even recognized it as that and felt good that I had a chance to sort of “warm up” before the more difficult things came my way. In essence, the first question was this: When you walk into an elementary classroom as the principal of your school, what do you expect to see?
I’ve answered this question a million times in workshops and discussions with other teachers about best practice and student engagement. I evaluate teachers using the TEAM rubric. I know what is expected in a classroom. And yet, in that moment of singularity, nothing came to mind. I could have talked about using in-class flipped instruction to get kids focused on the lesson while the teacher monitors the room and gets things ready for students to break out into groups. I could have talked about the latest brain research that shows us that movement helps activate the brain to learn and remember. I could have talked about play in the role of learning and how being active is the new ADHD drug of choice. I could have talked about utilizing the handful of computers in the back of the room to have students watch a Discovery Streaming video and answer some brief questions online to get immediate feedback for part of the lesson to be taught later. Or using those computers for kids to log into Khan Academy, or PLATO Learning, or Study Island and working through some sample problems so I have some formative assessment data at my fingertips. I could have talked about using iPads in groups of 5 or 6 as a center activity and having kids learn to code in order to build logical thinking skills for math and writing. I could have talked about the d.school process in elementary that could help kids learn to work collaboratively, empathize with their peers, and design-build-test-redesign-rebuild-retest in order to see the benefit of failure for success. I could have talked about Minecraft for goodness’ sake!
I could have. But I didn’t.
I blathered on about controlled chaos in the classroom using centers for learning and how the teacher should be more of a facilitator in the process than a direct instructionalist and yet understanding that some things (like multiplication tables) should definitely be memorized and stored in a folder of the brain so that dendrites and axons can find the necessary building blocks for mathematics when students need to think.
It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. It was an attempt at a textbook answer devoid of risk or meaning. OK. It was bad.
And then there was the silence. Each committee member had one scripted question, but they could also come back with follow-up questions. I wondered if the interviewer would ask for more detail or for me to explain something I had said in more concrete terms. The next person in line to ask questions was evidently wondering if it was her turn yet. The silence was deafening in my head. And I felt myself step into quicksand.
The next person in line finally asked the first questioner if she was finished. Her answer was, I think, meant to bring some levity to the situational awkwardness. “I’m finished if he’s finished,” she said. And I chuckled along with everyone else.
But I knew in that moment that I had underperformed right out of the gate. As I attempted to answer the next question, part of my brain was in overtime trying to go back and re-answer the first. And yet the questions kept coming. What is your role as principal in the building? What do you tell a parent whose child just took the TCAP for the first time and the child underperformed? What do you see as your role in IEP meetings? What can you tell us about your vision for RTI?
All fair questions. Each one answered more blandly than the last. Somewhere in the middle I knew I had failed. I was neck deep in quicksand and nothing I did helped me get out of the bind that first misstep had caused.
Finally, the Director asked me the get-out-of-jail-free question. What else do we need to know about you? But it was too late. My brain was mush. My body drained. It had only been 45 minutes, but I felt like I’d just gone 15 rounds in my head.
I wouldn’t have hired me.
I spent the next 24 hours kicking myself every single way I could imagine. I answered those questions again and again. I couldn’t sleep that night for laying in bed rethinking how I should have or could have or wish I had done something different.
No. I did not get the job. And that kind of opportunity does not present itself often.
And here’s my take away about it all.
When I interviewed for the job I have now, I think I pretty much nailed it. I was confident. I was direct. I felt good about it when it was over. I did not get the job, but what I did get was a phone call from the principal stating that everyone in the room felt I needed to be at that school in some capacity, so a job was created for me. That’s not unusual. It has happened before.
So…perhaps there is something inside of me that knew I wasn’t ready for this job. Or that this job wasn’t ready for me. Something in my head that kicked in and helped me fail in order to protect me from a bigger failure. Failure, after all, is a matter of perspective.
Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.