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The Biggest Mistakes I’ve Made in My Teaching Career

Every day, I teach. More importantly, perhaps, is that every day I learn. I’ve certainly made some mistakes. But after well over a decade of active in-classroom teaching, I can finally say...that I’m still figuring it out. From new pedagogy and community needs to socio-political climate and whatever’s “trending” on social media at the moment, our profession is in a constant state of flux. Old strategies wear out, new ways of establishing rapport and community phase in...As soon as you think you’ve “got it”, you’re miles behind the pack. It’s one of the most frustratingly wonderful things about being a teacher.

Still, some practices tend to stand the test of time. Perhaps reading about them here won’t immediately change your practice. If you’re like me, you have to figure it all out on your own. But just maybe they’ll wind their way into your subconscious to access when you’re most ready for them. You see, I’m not too proud to say I’ve made each and every one of the mistakes I’m about to share with you below. Partially due to hubris; partially due to the very nature of being a terrified young professional. Either way, I wish I hadn’t. In order for our profession to continue to prove its relevance and worth, it needs to evolve. And to do that, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past. May this be your history lesson.

Not connecting with parents.

When I began teaching, I was terrified of parents. I had heard all the horror stories of “helicopter parenting”, and had seen peers in nasty confrontations. When at all possible, I had other people make my phone calls, hid behind email, and spent many an anxious parent night, secretly hoping for no-shows. The things was, I was new in the field, and felt like any clever adult might “catch” my failings instantly: every accommodation I might have struggled with, each lesson that was worded imprecisely, and every project that could have been better-differentiated to meet the specific interests and needs of their child. In my eyes, I was potentially a bruised apple in a barrel: doing his best, but certainly not as shiny as the rest. So, I hid. And avoided.

This was a mistake. Here’s the first thing: your student’s parents are human, just like you - of course, barring their obvious bias. Having them as a part of your teaching team often means better homework returns, increased engagement, as well as clarity on goals and expectations. Unsurprisingly, you’ll connect better with your students if you are a part of their family - a part of their team. From time to time, you will encounter a less-than-pleasant experience, but if you’re able to center yourself, you’ll realize you both have the same basic goal in mind: to help the student. If you’re true to this end, every one of these encounters will in all likelihood end to the benefit of your student. For those looking for a super easy way to drastically improve your parent contact, check out the Remind app: parents as far away as a text.

Not collaborating.

Well throughout the first half of my career, I was so fixated on developing my own craft, that I ignored an excessively important element: community. Alongside the insecurity of constantly feeling like “I don’t know what I’m doing”, I had this desire to “do something different”. I avoided having people in my classroom, and despite loving and respecting my colleagues, I didn’t want to be told what to do.  I was developing my style, and I wanted that to be a solidly unique voice in the world of education.

I had no idea how this would so negatively impact my ability to learn and grow as a professional. Learning from your peers is an absolute necessity in our field - and you don’t have to ask for a lecture. Just pop by and observe during a prep period. It only makes sense to workshop your site-specific challenges with others that are struggling with the very same challenges. If “sharing practice” is not already a built-in part of your school (or if it feels somewhat superficial and is not meeting your needs), I’ve found that initiating it yourself is often met with relief and even excitement. All teachers want to better their practice, and helping to lift up each teacher’s pedagogical superpower only encourages us to keep improving.

Not being a part of the neighborhood.

In the first years of my time at a school I loved, I did not love the city we all lived in. My experiences at the time mostly involving the wasteland of college town nightlife, I did not consider myself a part of the locality. I was an import. Not only was this a very colonial mindset, it also led to a disconnect between myself, the communal vision of my school, and the students I was very earnestly trying to help through this world. I thought I could still bring my unique pedagogical vision to an audience, without really understanding their story.

I was dreadfully wrong. When I had chosen to remove myself or see myself as separate from this community, I had willfully missed out on so many opportunities. Thematic connections to local issues, community members presenting in the classroom, field trips where we learn about how our city really works...these things add a “golden ticket” to your curriculum plan: relevance. Not only has being a more active part of the community benefit the classroom, it can also help put into perspective exactly what expectations the community has for you when working with their youth. When you have a better understanding of the immediate community, you begin to better understand your role in that community. Recently, having parent involvement in my curriculum planning has been a gift like no other. If you have any flexibility in the content of your lesson plans, try to bring parents in before the next school year begins. They have some fantastic ideas.

Not staying after.

Periodically throughout my career, I have both “volunteered for everything” and thought, “let someone else do it this time...I’ve paid my dues.” At times, I’ve provided after school programming without pay, daily individualized tutoring, went to every dance and event, and provided 24-hour email homework assistance. Other times, I’ve avoided school functions altogether, only provided mandatory support, and gone home the moment my contracted day ends, often in order to take better care of myself and my family. Listen, balancing work life and self care is tough, and no one strategy will give you an easy clear-cut solution to the issue.

Yet alternately bingeing on extracurriculars and swearing them off altogether was not a healthy approach to my profession. Here’s what I suggest: choose what you can manage, and do it consistently. You may not be able to make every dance. But maybe you do the Holiday Ball every year. You might not be able to stay after every day. Choose office hours and stick to them. The truth is, many of your students need an alternative space where they can learn. The formal classroom won’t work for everyone. But after school support might. No matter how you manage your non-classroom time, be sure to have an element of content-related support, as well as a space for you to get to know students outside of direct academics. When they see you supporting them outside of the classroom, it lets them know that you’re in it for the long haul. You’re on their team.

Not stealing.

I still struggle with this more than I probably should, but throughout most of my career, I did everything myself. Worksheets, guiding questions, activities, performance tasks: everything from scratch. I’d always sort of assumed that if anything out there was really working reliably, we’d all be doing it. So I created it all. I spent hours on crafting state standards into creative, outside-the-box adventures into the curriculum. I’d spend long nights and money I didn’t have to create unique experiences I thought I could stand behind.

And although through this work I believe I really found who I was as an educator, I failed to recognize that there were some simply incredible lesson ideas already being shared across the globe online. And lessons that I would have been super excited to teach, too! You’re not the only one with amazing ideas! And let’s be honest, you’re going to take someone else’s lesson and make it your own anyway. The great thing about utilizing online resources like Teacher Pay Teachers and, oh, I don’t know, Education World, is that many of the lessons have gone through the trials and tribulations of the classroom. The creators have tips for practice, differentiation resources, standards alignment, and often give you cheap “resource-sensitive” alternatives to make it all happen! Yes, you will always bring your unique style and persona to your classroom, but ignoring passed-down wisdom and re-inventing the wheel is just silly!


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.