In brief: When teachers make mistakes in front of their classes, it may seem like the end of the world. Haunting nightmares of a teacher’s mistake may keep him or her awake at night, but it shouldn’t. Here’s why teachers should embrace their mistakes.
It’s the last class block on a Friday. Barreling forward in your lesson, you stand up by the whiteboard to write the lesson’s essential question:
“How does Roger Lemelin’s choise to include dialogue, imagery, and symbolism enrich his narrative, ‘The Golden Pants?'”
Proud of your clearly articulated question, you circle the room, talking excitedly about the story your class is about to read.
Until that terrible moment.
You turn around to read your question out loud again.
How could I write ‘choise’ instead of ‘choice’?!
A student raises her hand up like a lightning rod.
“Ms. S, I think there’s a mistake in the way the word ‘choice’ is spelled.”
Chuckling and red-faced, you chalk it up to “everyone makes mistakes,” thank the student, and erase the error on the board.
But the memory of your mistake is not so easily erased.
WHEN TEACHERS MAKE MISTAKES
We say that “everyone makes mistakes. ” We may quote Alexander Pope and say, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” But in my experience, I have found students, teachers, parents, and society at large uncomfortable with admitting that teachers, just like everyone else, can make mistakes.
Teachers are somehow exempt from protection under the “human error” umbrella. Like Frankenstein, we are considered not quite human; we are bred in intellectual basements, pieced together from bits of books or pages of dictionaries, finely-tuned and then released out into the public to mold minds. We don’t– in the public’s eyes– have bad moments, tired days, or awful headaches. At a moments notice, we are a math textbook, a grammar guide, a musical instrument. But all of this is of course false. We are human, and prone to error. And we should be happy–excited, even– when we make the odd mistake.
Mistakes keep us humble
When I make the occasional mistake– as I did in the true story above– I have the opportunity to be humbled. The truth is, if left alone to roam around mistake-free, I tend towards big-headedness. I know a lot about writing; I read a lot; I can recite poetry from memory– Did you notice all the talk about this me, or I? When I make a mistake, I am shocked out of these illusions of grandeur and tripped by Fate back to the ground. Intellectually, I then realize, I’m still at ground-level, peering upwards to literary giants. Recognizing my errors, my head shrinks and my mind expands.
Mistakes make us better teachers
Even though mistakes are painful, they are wise teachers. In my first year of teaching, for example, I made a great mistake. I told a group of grade ten students to raise their hands if they agreed with the arguments they just heard. Enthusiastically, I demonstrated the raising of hands, throwing both of mine up in the air. In response to my raised hands, the students began to grin and laugh. Only later, on that hot, June day, staring at my sweaty mug in the staff bathroom mirror, did I realize the awful truth. The size of sweat circles near my armpits were ginormous. Of course, proudly presenting sweaty pits to a class of grade tens is the comedic equivalent of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Hilarious and timeless.
But because of this mistake, I’ve become wiser. I won’t wear a tighter, darker shirt in the last month of the school year. After making a spelling mistake on the board once or twice, I commit the word to memory (embarrassment, transient, and minuscule— these words I will never forget). When I misquote a writer, I commit the quote to memory. When I lose my keys, I find a place for them in my top drawer. All these improvements taken together have made me better.
Mistakes make our students better
And my students are enriched when they see their teacher correct a mistake with grace rather than self-flagellation.
Many of our students believe that any mistakes are a sign of their low intelligence and general incompetence. Perfectionism and low-self esteem kill our students’ motivation, creativity, and desire to learn. Such students are held captive by self-critical thoughts:
“If I make a mistake, I’m stupid.”
“If I make a mistake, they’ll laugh.”
“I didn’t do it right the first time, so why bother?”
“I won’t do that because if I get it wrong it says something about me.”
“I’ve been doing well so far, so I won’t risk losing my A by taking a risk.”
Like our students who procrastinate, underperform, or even self-harm due to perfectionism and low-self-esteem, we teachers can fall prey to perfectionism and the fear of mistakes it fosters. When we fight our perfectionistic urges and instead model to our students graceful acceptance of mistakes, we are teaching them:
“Mistakes make me better.”
“Even intelligent people make mistakes.”
“Mistakes don’t mean I’m stupid.”
“It’s worth taking the risk. Even if I make a mistake, I can recover from it.”
For all our talk about growth mindsets and student motivation, talk is cheap if we teachers can’t practice what we preach. Rather than feeling ashamed in front of our classes when making a spelling mistake, then, we can say something like, “Ah, I’ve made a mistake. Thanks for pointing that out, Marie. Did you know that William Faulkner, Winston Churchill, Earnest Hemingway, John Keats, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and Albert Einstein were terrible spellers? Thank God spelling mistakes aren’t a sign someone is dumb. If these writers and thinkers became famous despite their spelling mistakes, you and I have good chances of becoming best-selling authors!”
THE BOTTOM LINE
When you’ve made the occasional mistake as a teacher, consider it a gift. Each mistake is a chance to become humble, to sharpen your teaching skills, and to empower children with perfectionistic or low-self esteem tendencies.
Apart from all these benefits, mistakes are also good for a laugh. My mistakes have certainly kept me laughing throughout my teaching career. I hope your career is just as hilarious.
To your teaching success and work-life balance,
P.S. Are you a perfectionist teacher struggling to manage your extremely high expectations for your performance? You’re in good company–read about perfectionism in teachers.