Teachers are not infallible, teachers make mistakes.
That might sound obvious, but it’s worth reminding ourselves once in a while. Because it’s usually a lot easier to forgive when other teachers make mistakes than it is to forgive ourselves.
There are many intense pressures placed on teachers. And because we care about our students and hold ourselves to a high standard, it can be hard to accept when we (inevitably) mess up or get things wrong.
Years ago, a mentor teacher explained the reality of teacher imperfections. He pointed out that teachers are in the business of communicating – we say, write, and teach a lot of things every day – and if each of us makes only one mistake per day and we multiply that by the number of days in a school year and then by the number of years we spend in the classroom, that works out to many thousands of mistakes and missteps over a career.
Considering this, it’s important to accept the fact that you’re going to make mistakes before they happen. If you can accept this, you’ll develop a self-forgiving attitude that will make you better prepared to deal with the mistakes when they do come.
Today I’m going to share practical tips on how to navigate some common situations that arise when teachers make mistakes.
Admit Your Mistake
Most errors are pretty small – you accidently mark an answer incorrect on a student’s homework; you cite the wrong historical date in a lesson; you call a student by their older sibling’s name. These are all fairly inconsequential and easily-corrected things. The best thing to do is admit your mistake as soon as you realize it has been made and simply correct it.
Being willing to admit a mistake sets an important tone of cooperation and openness in your classroom that you won’t have if you try to play the all-knowing and always-correct authority figure.
If a student has pointed out your error, sincerely (and when appropriate), thank them for pointing it out. Be sure everyone gets the correct information or grade and then move on. These are not end-of-the-world issues. Don’t treat them as such or be excessively embarrassed by them. They happen to all of us.
Sometimes though, mistakes are a bit bigger.
Hold Yourself Accountable For Your Actions And Remedy The Situation
You might lose your temper with a misbehaving class; or maybe your students all do terribly on an exam, and you realize that you did not cover the material adequately.
Be straight with your students – Words like, “Okay everyone, yesterday you were not at your best, but I lost my temper, and I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry,” or, “So these test scores were not where they should have been, but I think at least part of that is my fault,” are a good start.
Then (possibly as a group) come up with a way to fix the problem.
What is it that made you lose your temper and how can you all address it? Are you going to re-teach the material and give a new test, allow students to make corrections, or just plain throw it out? What you choose to do is going to depend a lot on the specifics of your situation, students, and the mistake itself.
Regardless of what you do though, modeling appropriate, graceful, and humble behavior when you have messed up is a significant and valuable life lesson that you can teach your students.
Make Your Admin Aware of Big Mistakes
It is my opinion that principals do not like surprises.
You misstep while talking to a parent; or you send an email about a specific student to the incorrect person; maybe you have a very important and very mandatory staff meeting before school, and you miss it because you have it written down on the wrong morning.
The first thing that you need to do when these bigger mistakes happen is let your administration know. Own up to the mistake. Tell them what happened. It’s a very normal impulse to want to make excuses, but resist this urge. Taking responsibility and making sure all the relevant facts are out in the open will help the situation resolve more smoothly.
These bigger issues can have some major fallout – for you and possibly for your school. Though you may be dealing with some (understandable) embarrassment or fear, don’t let these difficult emotions compound the mistake into something worse.
And when your administration advises you on the best way to address the mistake, do it even if it is difficult or uncomfortable. Your professional career and reputation as well as that of the school may depend on it.
Everyone Makes Mistakes
All teachers make mistakes. It’s normal. Even the greatest teachers mess up sometimes. In fact, learning from their mistakes is probably how they got to be so great in the first place.
It’s become popular to teach “growth mindset” to students (a concept pioneered by researcher Carol Dweck), which is about learning to see mistakes as opportunities for growth rather than evidence of a flawed personality. There should really be just as much emphasis placed on helping teachers to develop a growth mindset themselves.
Teachers can get surprisingly competitive, and we’re always feeling a lot of pressure to be perfect.
Just like we tell our students, we are all human, we all fail sometimes. Mistakes are chances for growth. There’s no better way to become a lifelong learner than to learn from your failures and slip-ups.
So remember that none of the following are bad words:
- “That was definitely a mistake.”
- “I was wrong.”
- “Let’s try this again.”
- “Tell me what I can do.”
- “You are right.”
If you’re a teacher who cares about doing a good job, if you care about your students’ success and well-being, you’re going to be okay.
Mistakes will happen, but trust that you’ll have the skills to course-correct in an appropriate and timely way.
You, dedicated teacher, deserve to forgive yourself and remember that you’re not alone.
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