We all make mistakes. Even teachers do. I've seen spelling mistakes on teacher-made bulletin boards, tests, and newsletters and usually I say nothing. I've watched a math teacher make a careless mistake during a mini-lesson, and no one said anything during the long minutes that the mistake remained on the chalkboard. I've wondered, "Do the students not notice? Or do they think it's disrespectful to correct the teacher?"
Until last year, I managed to get through many years of teaching without any student pointing out a mistake I had made in math or anything else. I came to think of myself as nearly infallible. Last year, when a student caught me in a careless math mistake for the first time ever, I was genuinely surprised, but I laughed it off and said, "This is amazing! This is the first math mistake I've ever made!" From that point on, the students took it as a friendly challenge to catch the math teacher making another math mistake. By the end of the school year, my most alert class had caught me in four or five mistakes. Some of my other classes never noticed one mistake by the end of the year.
That all changed this year when the first student who caught me in a mistake asked in fun, "Do I get a prize for that?" I had a jar of small prizes left over from a Math Family Fun Night, so I was happy to oblige. I had no idea that the prize incentive would inspire my students to pay rapt attention to my every word and chalk mark! And I certainly had no idea how many mistakes I actually do make, until my students started pointing them out to me.
I now throw myself open to your questions.
Why would you want to encourage students to catch your mistakes? Isn't it embarrassing? Doesn't it erode your credibility or authority?
You're a math teacher -- you shouldn't be making math mistakes! What kinds of mistakes have your students caught?
Do you give prizes if the students catch mistakes in written language?
As a math teacher, I give prizes only for catching math mistakes. I want to keep the focus on math, and I don't want to start debating whether or not items in a list should be capitalized (for example). But it would seem appropriate for a teacher of multiple subjects to give prizes for catching mistakes in any of those subjects.
Do your students call out or raise their hands to point out a mistake?
While our general participation policy is to raise a hand and wait to be called on, students may call out if they catch a mistake. That's part of the fun. Otherwise, sometimes I would be able to catch my own mistakes before turning around from the chalkboard to call on raised hands.
I'm assuming that it's your most talented students who catch your mistakes... right?
What do you do if nearly the whole class notices a mistake as soon as you make it -- do they all get prizes?
In the hubbub when it seems that nearly the whole class has noticed a silly mistake of mine, I usually don't have a clue who caught me first, but the students nearly always agree on which one or two students spoke up first. If it's a tie, they both get prizes.
Do students mind if some students get several prizes over time and others don't get any?
They don't seem to mind at all. Also, two of my classes enjoy singing a silly song when I'm caught in a mistake, so everyone gets to share the moment. (They sing the "Spider Pig" song from The Simpsons, which in its nonsensical lyrics turns out to be quite a fitting way to celebrate a teacher's silly mistake!)
What happens if your students catch a substitute teacher making a mistake?
A substitute teacher apparently mixed up two related math terms repeatedly while covering my classes. She duly noted which students should get prizes upon my return. I told my classes I wasn't going to be held accountable for another adult's math mistakes; they understood and said they had still had fun singing the "Spider Pig" song so many times. I'm glad she was a good sport about it, but you might forego the silly celebrations if you don't want to risk rattling a substitute.
What kind of prizes do you give out?
In addition to all the benefits mentioned above, opening up myself to my students' correction has helped keep me on my toes. Catching me in mistakes has not been just a grand equalizer for the students -- it has been an equalizer for all of us. We all make mistakes. We're all in this together. We all can take our mistakes in good humor and benefit from friendly correction. Those are fine lessons to learn, along with the math lesson of the day.
Article by Wendy Petti
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