A defining moment in every teacher’s life

How do you handle mistakes you make in front of your class? Some important lessons these two authors learned in observing teachers.

In Anchorage, Alaska, a first-year teacher made a spelling error on the board during the first week of school. As often happens in these 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 this 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 this 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, this claim should never 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, this 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, this teacher inadvertently informed the class that mistakes are silly and if you make them in this 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 this, it could be true. It is possible that this 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 this 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 that mistake. Discussion themes included:

1.) If you try to go too fast, errors happen.
2.) Mistakes can be corrected.
3.) Mistakes can lead to learning.
4.) Mistakes are not good or bad. They are simply data that you can use to improve and grow.
5.) Mistakes are valuable.
6.) If you’re not making some mistakes, maybe you’re not learning anything.
7.) You can’t do anything about a mistake if you are not aware of it.
8.) What you do after learning you made a mistake is your choice.
9.) Erasers have a purpose, and they don’t work by themselves.

The six scenarios above represent only a small portion of the possible responses that a teacher could make when being confronted with a mistake by a student. 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?

© Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller. Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose.  Chick has also written Spirit Whisperers: Teachers Who Nourish a Child’s Spirit. For more information.

Related Resource:

Book: The Perfection Deception
Presentation: “Perfectionism: What’s it Costing Our Kids?”

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2 thoughts on “Making a Mistake in Front of Your Class

  1. Hello , this happened to me too and I chose to admit the mistake but practically it was very hard to accept it in front of the class.

  2. Good for you. Students have to be paying a good bit of attention to notice an error we make, and that’s generally a good thing and the kind of engagement we’re all looking for. Most of us are conditioned to believe that our competence, skill, and even worth depend on never making mistakes which, of course, is impossible to do. So when we do mess up in front of others, it can be very easy to respond in ways that compound the problem or add stress to the environment or relationships. Admitting an error—and thanking the student for pointing it out—is a great model for our students. It shows that we are ALL learning and don’t have to be (or strive to be) perfect.

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