Can Teachers Make Mistakes?

“Tell me about how it is okay for teachers to make mistakes,” Michelle said. “I am both a teacher and a parent,” she went on. “As a parent, when you make a mistake, you can acknowledge it, change your mind, make a better decision, and move on. But when you are responsible for other people’s children, you can’t make mistakes. What’s a professional to do?”

In a talk I gave last month at a school in the Midwest, I had made the twin statements: “Mistakes are learning opportunities; Fear of Making Mistakes is a learning disability.” The idea hit a nerve.

Another parent in the room answered Michelle with: “I am a perfectionist, so I know exactly what you are talking about. If my child were in your class, I would want you to handle your mistake the same way you would handle it with your own child: make the mistake and learn from it.”

Another parent spoke up, “I agree. You know, one thing that I do with my son is say something like, ‘Remember that thing I said, yesterday? That was wrong. Please ignore that. What I should have said is….”

“I know,” said another parent. “I do the same thing, and he always appreciates it. I have learned three things since I started being open about my mistakes with my daughter:

“1) I am modeling to her that it is okay to make mistakes (I saw that she was starting to become a perfectionist.);

“2) our relationship is a lot better once I started admitting my mistakes to her, and

“3) it has helped me a lot with my perfectionism—which is most definitely a learning disability. I hate it.”

“I know,” said Michelle, “but what about the parent-teacher conference? Are parents okay with me talking about my mistakes? I would rather talk about the child’s mistakes.”

After the general laughter had subsided, another teacher spoke up and said, “I have found that it is much easier to talk about the parents’ mistakes once I have talked about my own mistakes. Even better, it makes it easier for us to talk about what we need to do to help him, because sometimes parents are afraid to admit to a teacher that they aren’t perfect. Like: it’s not my fault that he is a troublemaker! They’d rather we agree that he has ADHD.

Another teacher said: “I have found that for a teacher to admit his mistakes is one of the best ways to make your class a learning community.  A day when I begin a class with, ‘Yesterday I said something wrong, and I want to correct it,’ is a day when my classes go well.”

There was general agreement that fear of mistakes is most definitely a learning disability. However, near the end of the evening, one parent asked a question that was harder to answer, “Why are so many of us are plagued with this disability, and what can we do to free ourselves?”

If you had been there, what would you have said?

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5 thoughts on “Can Teachers Make Mistakes?

  1. If I had been there, I would have recommended that everyone read “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” by Kathryn Schulz. ( Schulz explores our fear of mistakes, and encourages us to have a new perspective on “wrongness” — one in which we see mistakes as opportunities for growth and creativity. I participated in a book talk on “Being Wrong” through the Elementary School Heads Association just last week. My colleagues and I discussed, among other things, how critical it is to encourage students to be risk takers, to establish environments in which it is o.k. for them to make mistakes, and even to model mistake-making. We also agreed that resilience is one of the most important skills we can help them develop.

  2. Because most of us were raised by parents who told us that we WERE smart or clever or gifted or perfect as if it were a condition, not that we had the capacity to be those things (well, not perfect, but smart) if we worked hard, accepted challenges and kept ourselves open to new ideas and experiences. Consequently, mistakes (not to mention failures) are taken as evidence that maybe they were wrong about us; maybe we aren’t really as smart or clever or gifted as we were led to believe (which we’ve always secretly known to be true anyway regardless of our accomplishments), and if we admit our mistakes or display them publicly, then others will discover the ugly truth that we aren’t as smart as we want to appear. As to the second question, reading Carol Dweck’s MINDSET and Rick’s THE GENIUS IN CHILDREN is a good place to start.

  3. You can’t lose your job as parent when you make mistakes. (Also, we’re all amateurs when it comes to parenting.) as the parent we hold the professional teacher to a different standard, which has it’s pluses and it’s minuses.
    I really like the point that if the teacher feels secure enough to say, “I made a mistake,” then that can open a dialogue about how to help the child.
    One year I was lucky enough to teach a small class of fifth graders, and when I had to write the spelling words for the week on the blackboard, I loved making mistakes in my cursive (which I never learned to write) and wait for the students to correct it – which they did triumphantly!
    Carry this simple example further into the parent-teacher relationship, with trust on both sides, and it must really encourage an atmosphere of partnership for the good of the child.

  4. ‘Can teachers make mistakes?’

    Quite honesty, if they cannot – if they are somehow prohibited from doing so – then the teaching profession is doomed to extinction; the only uncertainty is how soon.

    Clearly that evening’s event was comfortable and successful, each was satisfied that they had heard and been heard. Then, near the end of the evening, a bright-spark parent remembers the rest of the world and asks two shrewd and provocative questions. If I’d been there, and if it wasn’t already too late at night, my response might have gone something like this:

    (Up until then the soiree was somewhat complacent and self-congratulatory; it needed a kick in the pants, a touch of drama. Then a parent obligingly provided a bridge which I’d have grasped by the horns. Once I had everyone’s attention, I would’ve said in a slow deliberate voice …)

    “Thank you, parent-Fred, for asking two important questions; Why are so many of us plagued with the learning disability called fear-of-mistakes? and How can we free ourselves of this disability?

    “The answers are simple; they do span all the shades of difficulty but are u-n-i-v-e-r-s-a-l-l-y workable to some extent whenever suitably applied; plus they provide us with additional worthwhile bonuses.

    “Let’s start by clarifying the first question: fear-of-mistakes is NOT just a learning disability, it is a LIFE disability. The making of mistakes and learning from them is fundamental to evolution, period. (Here, I’ve just loosened the roof of some “parenting Fish Tanks” – see below!)

    “There would be no life on planet earth today if life had not been making mistakes all along. And, for example, if mankind had made no mistakes, instead of our population increasing from 2.4 billion to over 7 billion in my life, we would all be long gone.

    “Basically; no choice means having mistakes foisted upon us; having choice means risking a mistake and enduring whatever consequences ensue.

    “No wonder life is afraid of mistakes; no wonder that, with the mushrooming multitude of choices that bombard you and I day-in and day-out, fear-of-mistakes has become a life-consuming disability for us!

    “The answer to the second question, the How-to one, is ridiculously simple and blindingly obvious: The same way we always have; BY DOING IT AND LEARNING SOMETHING FROM THE DOING! (`Just Do It` as Nike says.)

    “Open that one-liner up a bit and note the beginnings of a formula; Recognize Problems and Opportunities, make Choices, Act, Overcome Setbacks, Enjoy Your Wins and Live With – and Learn From – Inevitable Mistakes … all in a manner that is as controlled as can be.

    “Easier said than done, sure, but we have stepped back, stepped way back – far enough to espy the obstreperous humongous ‘elephant in the room.’ (Is the roof lifting from your parenting Fish Tank yet?) Now we can better determine the tender bits to bite off and the best way of ingesting enough elephant to fill the stomachs of our particular world.

    “My headline to these words is this; ‘Free your child from their Fish Tank – please and thank you!’

    “Enough hinting already, I’ll make my point: I implore you, I beg you on my bended knees for the sake of children everywhere; discard and trash the Fish Tank trap in which most of us currently parent our child. Maybe first you need to peek out from inside your own fish tank – the one that’s been your mental home since whenever – but this piece is about our children so for now we’ll assume that this is a done.

    “Fish Tank Parenting is immersing a child in a tight enclosed artificial environment that corresponds to someone’s concept of ‘ideal parenting’ but, in fact, bears little or no resemblance to basic datum or innate intelligence.

    “Think ‘glass ceiling’ with four walls; unfortunately little of the enclosure is transparent, too much is the opaqueness of ignorance and closed-mindedness (reflections of ones own Fish Tank).

    “So, what does a parent actually have to do? I hear you ask. The hour is already late so I’ll be brief:

    “MAKE MISTAKES; test the variables of simple situations with little choices at first so as not to overwhelm anyone or risk consequences getting out of control. Innocent intentional actions resulting in minor mistakes are an essential part of the formula, key to the success of any of life’s processes. Repeat as your increasing comfort level allows.

    “Enjoy your wins and stick-handle the problems as best you can. Afterwards orchestrate a brief mutual review of what went well and what fell off the rails (our family calls this ‘a debrief’). Acknowledge, correct and make amends for mistakes, and apologize when you think the other may expect an apology.

    “Consider, for example, making a wrong turn driving home, question it with your toddler and let him correct you.

    “Remember a gentle sense of humour works wonders, as does light-hearted playfulness.

    “Then move on with increasingly significant actions and, likely, bigger mistakes … remember the adage, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

    “New parents can be particularly challenged. You love your new life so very much and feel burdensomely responsible for every aspect of it to the extent that you confuse ‘love’ of your child with ‘possession’ and ‘control.’ You are so deeply involved in the ‘thinkingness’ of the moment that the ‘knowingness’ of innate intelligence is significantly submerged. So mix with and learn from other parents as Rick’s friends did that evening.

    “Now comes an example of one of the bonuses I mentioned earlier:

    “Shun any fear-of-mistakes, any perfectionism, in other key areas of your life, such as; make mistakes at work and let your operations team correct you; they will be revitalized and thank you at the debrief. Let them make mistakes without you tearing a strip off them!

    “(Yawn) Excuse me, but the hour is late and I’m already deep into Rick’s blog.

    “This amounts to a thumb-nail sketch on a napkin; it points to the big picture and, once one has grasped that, the smaller parts fit into place much more readily.

    “Have a good rest-of-the-evening, and a great week!”

    Respectfully submitted by
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

    P.S. Rick, that dastardly diagnosis ‘ADAH’ crept in up above; can you please make it the subject of a separate post?

  5. Thank you all for fabulous thoughtful posts. Someone I was talking with in the cafe this morning said: “I like all your essays, often because of the great comments. The comments are sometimes better than the article.”
    (He as a friend, so I didn’t punch him in the nose.)
    Thank you all.

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