By Otis Kriegel, author of Everything a New Elementary School Teacher REALLY Needs to Know (But Didn’t Learn in College)
You did it. You made a mistake.
Teachers are surprisingly human. We are not perfect. Of course we make mistakes. Whether the mistake was a miscalculation, a spelling error, or something you said that was incorrect, inaccurate, or simply didn’t make sense, it was bound to happen. So now what?
Don’t berate yourself.
Ever have someone shout at you when you made a mistake? Feels bad, right? And did you do it better the next time, or were you too scared to even try? Yelling isn’t exactly the best motivator, so don’t yell at yourself. As teachers, we are completing many tasks, making statements, asking questions, and communicating all day. It would be surprising if we didn’t make any mistakes. I’d be worried!
Don’t act like the mistake didn’t happen. Kids will catch that. Whether you mistakenly said that 2 + 3 is 4 instead of 5 or that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1787 instead of in 1776, cop to it. “Oops. Well, even teachers make mistakes!” Or when you realize your mistake, ask your class, “Did you just catch that?” You’ll encourage laughter and smiles.
I once made a mistake while teaching decimal division, which already had plenty of kids confused. I saw my error, and I tried to cover it up instead of admitting it. One of my students, almost jumping out of her seat, hand stabbing up and down in the air, noticed. I couldn’t help but smirk as I tried to move on without anyone else noticing. Finally she blurted out, “Mr. K! I saw that! You made a mistake!” All 33 kids started to laugh, bouncing in their seats. I showed them the mistake I had made, but it took a while to calm down the class. I could have simply said, “Oh. Wait a second. That’s not right.”
Use mistakes to your advantage.
What I should have done is used the mistake. Instead of trying to hide, I wish I would have turned to the class and asked, “Hey, anybody see my error? Can you tell me what it is?” We can learn from mistakes. So why not use them as a fantastic, effective teaching tool instead of trying to hide them? Let your students know! “Ha! You see that mistake I just made?” If no one catches it, then you really have a teaching moment to use.
Make a mistake.
I like to intentionally make mistakes when teaching. For example, when teaching first grade, I routinely make spelling errors in our daily schedule or when doing a shared writing activity. Then I tell my students how many mistakes I have made if they haven’t already caught the errors. I do the same thing when teaching upper grades: throw in an error and watch as students try to find it. I’ve assigned students word problems, and then when I gave them my answer and showed them how I computed it, I included a mistake. They had to find the miscalculation and then resolve the problem. Looking for a fun assignment? Have kids write their own problems, essays, poems, or anything else you are working on, including mistakes that others have to find. It makes learning an adventure, changing the way kids need to think to solve a problem. And changing the way they think and feel about mistakes.
It also encourages students to pay more attention. Learning that everyone makes mistakes not only helps kids develop critical thinking skills to determine what is and isn’t a mistake, but increases their trust in their critical thinking skills as well. They can evaluate what they think is and isn’t the truth. It encourages students to pay more attention to everything.
The biggest mistake? Not realizing that a mistake is an opportunity to learn. Everyone makes mistakes. They happen in school, sports, and all facets of life. Yes, they can be embarrassing, annoying, and time consuming. But the learning from making an error can be tremendous. Go make a mistake and see what happens!
Otis Kriegel is a seventeen-year veteran teacher, having taught in dual language (Spanish/English and German/English), monolingual, and integrated co-teaching (ICT) classrooms in the public schools of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and Berlin, Germany. For the past three years, he taught at the JFK School in Berlin, where he also developed a teacher coaching program. He received his M.S.Ed. in bilingual education from the Bank Street College of Education and has taught at the Steinhardt School at New York University. Otis has also been a guest lecturer at the Bank Street College of Education, City College of New York, and Touro College. He created the workshop, “How to Survive Your First Years Teaching & Have a Life,” which was the impetus for his book. An experienced presenter, Otis has conducted this workshop with hundreds of preservice and new teachers and continues to present in universities and teacher education programs. Otis lives in New York City.
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