Something Happened

The first few years I taught computers to K-5 grade at a little local charter school, we were working with an unmatched set of donated machines that were running everything from Windows NT to Vista. The computers were…unreliable, at best, when it came to performance. Some of the monitors were pretty sketchy, too; mostly they were big, old CRTs that weighed about eighty pounds, screens slowly wobbling left and right like an Air Dancer in slow-mo, and run through with glowing lines. There was a reason those things were donated, and it wasn’t because the previous owners had kind hearts and wanted to provide a superior computer learning experience for young children. There was an oft-heard cry in that tiny, hot room full of frustrated children and one frazzled human woman trying to make sense of the various error messages.


“Something happened” could mean anything. Most often it was:

  1. I accidentally hit Enter and I don’t remember how to backspace, or
  2. The printer isn’t working, or
  3. I just saw a bug, or
  4. My computer is literally on fire.

I don’t teach computers anymore, but I still remember those tiny cries of despair every time I hear the words, “something happened.”

I was losing it. After each week I felt like I’d been beaten with a big stick. My anxiety around teaching was through the roof. I couldn’t get through much of the curriculum when I couldn’t even get the computers to work. I wasn’t trained to work with kids, I was just a person who knew how to use computers and happened to be in the right place at the right time. I seriously considered quitting.

I struggled to find the teachable moment in the situation, and it happened when I realized there was no possible way I could deal with all those errors with first graders as my backup troubleshooting team. I taught the kids how to take a few simple steps that would help me solve their problems more quickly. Something kind of miraculous happened: We all got really good at troubleshooting together. Stay calm. Write down what happened, exactly. Tell me what the error message said, exactly. Tell me exactly what you were doing when it happened; if there’s a bug in the room, I don’t care, and if your computer is on fire, you don’t have to sit quietly and wait for me to see your raised hand. (Computers did catch fire in that lab, so this is not as ridiculous as it sounds, unless you think it’s ridiculous to repeatedly seat children before machines bent on their own heat-death. Your perception of absurdity may differ from mine.)

By the end of that hellish first three years, kids were helping each other and solving most of their own problems. Gone were the days of answering questions about unintended carriage returns. That was old-bag. No more questions about why the printer wasn’t printing from one computer – by then the kids had discovered they could save their docs to a public network folder and print them from the computers that were connecting, without ever involving me, which left me free to work on bigger issues.

When those same first graders showed up for the first computer class of fourth grade, they found a sleek new lab full of little flat-screened Dells all running one OS, all functioning properly, and we could finally stop troubleshooting problems and commence learning how to actually use computers for things like accessing the internet and making spreadsheets. I was always impressed by that group of kids. What I considered to be an anxiety inducing maneuver of epic proportions — teaching a whole day of computer to little kids with a bunch of broken computers — was, to them, just the way it was. They adapted accordingly and were grateful for the new technology when it came, not missing a beat when we moved on to using those machines for making spreadsheets and doing complex layouts in word; even learning PhotoShop and Flash animation basics.

I’d inadvertently helped create a small army of problem-solving children, and in the process had learned how to more clearly ask for the things I needed, too. Instead of treating the kids like…well, kids, I’d appealed to the side of (almost all) kids that is quick to learn and inherently good at adapting to new or difficult situations, so long as there is a confident leader at the helm. When I panicked, they panicked. When I was calm, they worked with me. I realized just exactly how capable they were of helping and solving problems on their own, and my confidence in them empowered them to take it a step further. Seeing them succeed independently, in turn, made me more confident that I wasn’t a complete idiot when it came to teaching, and the students and I ended up making a great team. We worked together like a lot of the adult teams I’ve since worked with, and in fact, those experiences in the classroom helped me figure out and develop streamlined processes for all my other work. Teaching kids helped me become more creative, more empathetic, a better contractor, a better, more patient person, and a more efficient problem solver.

Oh, and about that face-melting level of anxiety around things not working? Those kids taught me that no emergency is actually a fire, unless it’s literally a fire. And, as it turns out, treating actual flames is a lot like solving other problems: keep a clear head, move decisively, and trust and empower your team to fulfill its potential. Even if that means sending a pair of screaming seven-year-olds to find the maintenance guy. It happens.

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