You may have noticed the title of this blog is “The Golden Plunger.” I first heard the term in a lecture given by Rob Evans, and organizational psychologist and author of The Human Side of School Change. He spoke to our faculty about taking risks in our teaching practice. “The Golden Plunger” is an imaginary award that a teacher would bestow upon him or herself for implementing a great idea that falls with a thud on the classroom floor (or with a swish, as the name suggests).
From time to time I flirt with failure in my teaching practice, but it happens rarely enough that I feel assured that I’m not taking as many risks as I should–I would definitely not put my name in as candidate for a Golden Plunger. I wonder what kind or extent of failure in my teaching practice is acceptable or appropriate. How much failure is the right amount of failure? I hold up my aching wrists, knotted shoulders, bruised shin, and delicate backside as evidence.
This week, while on Spring Break, I made my first attempt at snowboarding. My wife and I just returned from a week in South Lake Tahoe where I, a self-assessed intermediate-level skier, impressed myself with hours and hours of adroit, high-speed, tight-turning runs at Heavenly Ski Resort. I indulged in wide open sweepers and tight twisties. I even took a few detours through the wooded portions for a bit of backcountry skiing (like slalom, but with immovable, potentially fatal obstacles). I came down the slopes, punched my boots out of my bindings, and patted myself on the back, feeling like the coolest cat on Earth.
Today, however, I feel like an arthritic octogenarian (no offense to octogenarians–I’m sure some snowboard way better than I). The day after Heavenly, we met up with a cousin who lives in the Bay area and has snowboarded for years. Julie and I both did the responsible thing and took a 2.5 hour lesson from the pros. I was amazed at how foreign it is to have your feet strapped to a board while sliding down a hill. As I usually do, I listened intently to our instructor, mimicked his moves and tried to implement his yogic body contortions. After the lesson I spent the day isolating the moves on the bunny slope–first the perpendicular slide, then the oscillating slide, then the heel-side stop, then the toe-side stop, etc, etc. After a while I got impatient and just started playing. Success intermingled with failure throughout the day, and my joints were paying the price. But one thing I can say about the day was that I was taking risks, searching for the friction point between experience and experimentation, between comfort and loss of control.
During my time skiing at Tahoe, I didn’t really “grow” much because with the exception of skiing in Powderbowl Woods (the part with trees and rocks and such), I didn’t really do anything that I hadn’t done before. I didn’t test my limits. And as a result, although I felt good about myself, I didn’t improve my skills as a skier. My day of snowboarding, however, was truly a growth experience. I began the day with 0% knowledge of snowboarding, and although I spent more time on my backside than I did on my feet, I learned a bit about my own body’s center of gravity, and a lot about a completely foreign skill that, as it turns out, is a whole lot of fun when you’re able to spend more than 60 seconds upright. Most importantly, I noticed a pattern. During periods of time when I would fall at rapid intervals (every 10 seconds), I was focused on not falling. I was getting frustrated and kept thinking about that moment AFTER I lost equilibrium. The periods when falls were less frequent, I used prior failures to inform my future movements, gestures, and postures. In the moments when I chose to learn from my mistakes, they became less frequent.
I wonder how often in my own teaching I choose to learn from my mistakes? And what opportunities have I lost when I neglected to do so?