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Oops! Four Common Teaching Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)

A few years back, while I was in the middle of teaching a class, my brain synapses misfired and I called the student in front of me (whom I knew quite well) a completely different name. In that moment, I could see the surprise and hurt on her face, and I began the process of mentally kicking myself. Even though we both laughed it off after I explained my bizarre lapse, I never stopped feeling bad about it, but I should have been more forgiving of myself. We all make mistakes, which is far better than intentionally setting out to hurt someone. We may be teachers, but we are human. Still, there are certain errors we tend to commit and over again, often without realizing it. Here is a list of the top offenders, and how to fix our practices so we are not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

We talk too quickly and too much.

Sometimes, we wind up making situations worse when our intention is to be helpful. For example, when we call on a student to answer a question and the student appears to be stuck, we often jump in right away to provide assistance. If we gave that student just a few more moments to gather his thoughts, we might be pleased to see the results. Instead, in our efforts to make sure nobody feels put on the spot, we stop students from having some necessary processing time before speaking out. As a result, they may get the message that they do not have valuable contributions to give to the class, or that their voices are not important. To prevent ourselves from making this blunder, we can employ both Wait Times I & II. For Wait Time I, we consciously count from one to five slowly to make sure we are providing enough time for students to respond. Once a student has spoken, we use Wait Time II, which involves counting to five one more time to see if the student (or a classmate) elaborates on the idea just shared. Five seconds might not seem like a lot, but it can make the difference between encouraging students to speak vs. shutting them down.

TMI (or not)

On my desk at work are pictures of my family, from my husband and children to my dog. As teachers, we should try to make sure we never cross the line of professionalism, but that does not mean we have to keep our personal lives completely hidden. It might be complicated to walk the line between sharing too much information about ourselves and not enough, but if we never share anything at all, our students might not see us as human beings, and our jokes about sleeping in our classrooms at night like vampires won’t be so funny anymore. To make sure we are balancing our teaching selves with our human selves, we can work the tidbits about our lives into our lesson planning process. For example, if I am teaching a unit on World War II, I can share a story that my grandparents told me from that time period, as well as figure out ahead of time how to tie my own story to what the class is learning. Or, if we are doing a lesson on commonly confused words, I can talk about how I confused the word “unaware” for “underwear” when I was little. The point is, by inserting personal bits of information into our class content, we can have time to think about how our personal lives interact with our teaching identities before class rather than in the moment, and avoid sharing too much or too little.

We Do it All

A lot of us wake up with the weight of the world on our shoulders. On any given day of instruction, teachers are undertaking an enormity of tasks, from monitoring students during their downtime to planning and executing instruction. We often feel like there is just too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it in, and we grow resentful of our constant feeling of being behind. However, if we’re doing our jobs correctly, our classes are a shared responsibility. It can be hard to figure out what students can learn to do without our constant guidance, but they can take on some of the tasks that do not require trained professional attention. For example, during recess, students can rotate through the job as line monitor, making sure that everyone is accounted for and walking, not running, back to the building. In older grades, students can help straighten the classroom space, or sharpen pencils, or organize materials. This kind of assistance does not only lighten our load; it also helps students feel a sense of shared ownership in the classroom, not to mention pride in the trust we show in their ability to be collaborators in a classroom community.

Humor Backfires

Back in high school, I had a teacher who made a lot of snarky jokes about his wife. Even at the age of 15 or so, I knew that he was being inappropriate and I felt uncomfortable. Injecting a sense of humor into instruction can be a wonderful thing, but only to a point. If our instructional arsenal relies heavily on comedy, we risk either alienating or offending students who don’t share our sense of humor. Above all, sarcasm has no place in a classroom, as it is too deadpan in delivery and can be confused for cruelty. When we talk to our classes, we should be conscious that they do not know us as adults, peer-to-peer, and that a lot of our jokes will not be received the way we perceive them. For that reason, it is a good idea to tone down our use of humor, aiming for lightheartedness without huge laughs. It takes a lot of awareness to gradually work on making sure our humor is dialed into our students, but by paying attention to their reactions and to our reasons for being funny, we can make better decisions in the moment.

It would be lovely to think that we will never do anything wrong or embarrassing again, but that is just a pipe dream. Instead of dreading our mistakes, we should embrace them. After all, they provide an opportunity to show us how to dust ourselves off and do better next time, and our resilience and humility also sets a good example for our students. Teaching is a complex journey, and we get a little better each time we engage in honest self-reflection. For example, the next time I accidentally talk too much, I will think about how to talk less the next time and hold myself to changing my actions. Small changes make big differences, and it starts with celebrating what we do wrong as a pathway to growth.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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