Teachable moments are often defined as opportunities for teachers to redirect students, using in-the-moment experiences and occurrences to underscore some important learning—immediately, while it is front and center on everyone’s mind. In essence, turning something that didn’t go well into the proverbial chicken salad. As I learned recently, when the teacher, in this case, me, discovers the teachable moment long after the people to be taught have left the classroom, in this case, the office, the teachable moment needs to go on HOLD.
What I also learned about teachable moments is that as a teacher, they can feel simply awful. My team—my creative, talented, incredible team of smart, energetic professionals—made what I am sure was a totally innocent mistake today. It was a mistake that I discovered totally by accident, clicking on something I spotted out of the corner of my eye.
What I now realize in a new way is that in truly teachable moments, we all have to learn—students and teachers. In my role of teacher, I had genuinely thought I’d done my work well. I’d written out the tasks, made a clear, detailed outline of process and timing, had meetings to explain it all, assigned tasks, built in approvals, and all of the steps that a good leader, a good teacher, takes to drive towards a successful outcome. Yup, I’d done it all. It should have worked. Except for one thing, albeit one big thing. It didn’t work. My “teaching plan” may have been thoughtful, thorough, even great, but my “students” didn’t learn, so my teaching didn’t get in as I wanted it to or thought that it had.
Everyone, myself included, confirmed just a little less and assumed just a little more than we each should have. Some tried to even be a little extra helpful, sharing a little more than what was needed, which may have added a little more confusion into the mix. Incremental actions that, as well intended as they were, definitely didn’t yield the result any of us intended.
We all THOUGHT we knew, we all acted with commitment and well-intentioned energy towards the end results, and we all tried to move mountains to make a desired delivery date—a date we had established for ourselves—a date we could have easily moved had any of us stepped back long enough to think it through. Oh, this teachable moment was so rich with opportunity to do better that it could have been called a teachable hour.
While I hope this teachable moment will teach my students, I assure you that it taught their teacher. It taught me that even when your team is brilliant, talented, savvy, and 100% dedicated to the mission as my team is, STUFF STILL GOES WRONG. And always will.
How lucky for me that this happened. It has helped me to understand teachers so much more, what you must feel and consider with every learning experience that goes awry, or even just slightly off course from those perfectly-laid plans. You’re amazing and I completely admire your ability to seamlessly and continually regroup. My entire waking hours, some 18–20 on the average day, are totally focused on teachers, on what you do, what makes you tick, and how you see your work as a powerful chance to help others become their best. I focus on teachers all the time and yet, I didn’t really see until tonight how intensely hard you work to make your jobs seem so easy. That’s why I decided to write this tonight, to thank you for teaching me, too.
I’d love to tell you that I applied all of this newfound learning from you with aplomb, style, and matching lipstick, but the only part of that that’s close to reality would be the lipstick. With no staff there to connect with, my colleague and I focused on the fix. Well, OK. In the spirit of full disclosure, she calmly stopped what she was doing and dedicated an hour of her time to deftly fix and remediate the error.
Me? I could write that I stood nearby as the poised sentry, stoically cheering her on, but that would make this post a work of fiction. Nah. I went into the conference room—and spun. Yup, melting into a puddle, reeling with what ifs. I did not focus on the fix; that was already in very capable hands. I focused instead on the spiral, what could have happened, what did happen, what this error would mean in terms of additional work, lost time, recovery, messaging, and new ways to explain yet again why process and sign-offs are so imperative. While exhausting, none of that spinning was particularly productive, but I suppose it was a good release in the sanctuary of the conference room. It also helped me get past the potential issues to see this circumstance for what it really was: something that was done incorrectly and that was fixed within the hour.
Unfortunately, the person who did the fixing didn’t do the breaking. Those team members didn’t see my reaction; those team members didn’t see the time we both lost. Witnessing reactions is not the real teachable moment; that begins with ownership, ownership that begins with me—but cannot come from only me. To be an effective teachable moment, the ownership must continue throughout our entire team. Everyone must learn what we each must own. Only then do the moments of discovery really begin.
I also realize that such moments of discovery are not really teachable moments—to be effective, they must become learn-able moments. Are we learn-ABLE? Are we able to learn? Of course we are, but only when we begin by owning our actions and owning our individual and collective need to learn new and better ways to achieve new and better results.
I know my team. When they discover and reconstruct how this error happened, what steps fixed it, and the implications of “what could have happened had we not caught it and fixed it so rapidly,” they will no doubt experience some of their own moments of awful. While I’d love to spare them that feeling, since it does feel awful, I know that I cannot. The awful feeling that I felt tonight, that they are sure to feel tomorrow, is the necessary prelude to owning, learning, and improving. Besides, just as teachers know their students, I know my team; they are strong and smart and well able to learn from this.
Post Script: I waited to share this blog post to share how the situation was ultimately resolved. To my delight, (but truthfully not to my surprise), the Teacher Peach team even outdid its normal level of excellent responsiveness. Everyone realized what happened, and more importantly, how it happened. Immediately each team member owned her aspect of the circumstance and set about to create an even tighter process, with more focused checks and balances. We also made very good use of our secret weapon—humor, too. With respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness, the Teacher Peach team rose to the occasion, teaching the teacher—and the team. All in all, a good harvest in the orchard classroom! Thank you teachers—for helping me to so quickly find the perspective to turn this into both a teachable—and learnable—moment for all of us.