In Anchorage, Alaska, a first-year teacher made a spelling error on the board during the first week of school. As often happens in those kinds of situations, a well-intentioned student politely pointed out the mistake. At the moment, the rookie educator probably didn't realize that this event firmly connected her to all teachers everywhere.
No teacher has escaped that defining moment. For some, the public mistake occurred during a demonstration of how to divide fractions. For others, it happened with the mispronunciation of a student's name. For still others, it took place when they diagrammed a sentence, computed a student's grade, or explained the correct answers on a test.
Some teachers were made aware of an error on the first day of school. Others went months before a public mistake was noticed by the students. But regardless of when it occurred or the specific context in which it happened, the first occurrence of a mistake was a defining moment in each educator's career. How a teacher handles that important event can set the tone for the rest of the school year.
When a math teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, made his first noticeable mistake, he told the class, "I did it on purpose to see if you were paying attention." Some students believed him. Most did not. To our way of thinking, that claim never should be used when explaining a mistake -- unless it is true. And if it is true, why would you want to do that? Wouldn't it be a wiser use of your time to teach students the correct way to do something rather than seeing if you can catch them not paying attention? Seems like a setup to us.
In Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, a music teacher casually dismissed her mistake and acted as if it were no big deal. She corrected her error and went right on with the lesson. At times, that response could be appropriate. Her reaction is certainly a step up from the response of pretending you did it on purpose. Yet, what appears as no big deal to the content expert (teacher) could loom as very important to a student with limited knowledge of the subject.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, a third-grade teacher used the opportunity to share her appreciation for the correction. She thanked the student for being willing to take a risk by speaking up and pointing out the error. Her appreciative reaction to one student let all her students know it is permissible to speak up and question the teacher in this classroom.
In a Vero Beach, Florida, classroom, a middle-school science teacher confessed to the class, "What a silly mistake that was!" His intention of making fun of himself to show his humanness could easily backfire and be misinterpreted by students. By ridiculing himself, that teacher inadvertently informed the class that mistakes are silly and if you make them in his classroom, ridicule could follow. Many youngsters could come away believing that people who make mistakes in this classroom will be made fun of.
A veteran teacher in Lansing, Michigan, told us that she never makes mistakes. Although we doubt that, it could be true. It is possible that that teacher is so focused on the perfection of what she says and does in the classroom that mistakes rarely occur. Seems to us that being that focused on perfection indicates that what is important to that professional educator is the details and not the passion for the subject. We suggest you focus on the passion. If you are passionate about your subject, the details will take care of themselves.
A Longview, Texas, high-school teacher reacted to the public disclosure of his mistake by thanking the student for pointing it out and leading a discussion of what could be learned from the mistake. Discussion themes included:
The scenarios above represent only a small portion of the possible responses that a teacher could make when being confronted by a student about a mistake. Do you remember your first one? Were you happy with your response? Have you changed your reaction now that you are a more experienced educator?
What are your students learning from your reactions to your own mistakes? Whatever reaction you choose in this important situation, you can be assured of one thing: Your students are watching and learning something. Are you offering that lesson with intentionality? Are you purposefully defining that defining moment?