Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Teaching

Where Did I Go Wrong? Teachers Learn From Their Mistakes (Opinion)

This post continues a series in which educators share what they have learned from their biggest teaching mistakes.

Don’t Grade Every Assignment

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 18 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on X @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a teacher was trying to grade or provide feedback on everything.

I thought that if I was going to assign something to my students that had a recording sheet, written response, or final product, then I had to provide feedback. To me, it was not fair that they put in the time and effort to work on a task that I did not reciprocate.

Every Friday, I collected my 3rd graders’ journals and responded to 2-3 entries for each of my students. What I learned was that this routine was not maintainable for me. Not only was it difficult for me to keep up with, but I was not involving students in the feedback process. I did not know if students read my responses and understood my feedback.

Since I was working to simply respond to the entries, I was not making an effort to see trends of misconceptions or misunderstandings.

My biggest lesson was that I needed to include my students in the feedback process. I switched my routine, and every Friday became my teacher-student conference day. I had students bring me their journals, and we discussed the work they had completed. I asked questions to check for understanding, and students had the opportunity to ask questions about things they were unsure about. I also used their work to provide concrete and specific feedback.

Aside from my students’ journals, I also found a lot of assignments that I was grading really didn’t need to be “graded.” Once again, I realized that my students needed feedback and not a summative grade.

I shifted my thinking and used those assignments as data points for my instructional planning. I analyzed the assignments to formatively assess what my students were getting and what misconceptions they had. I then adjusted my subsequent lessons in order to address my student needs. It was a more effective use of my time to analyze student work rather than try to give each assignment a grade.

No ‘Power Struggles’

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. Chandra is a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber:

I’ve been very fortunate to have had a great teaching career. One in which I’ve had few regrets or major mistakes which might taint my views of my time in the profession. However, everyone has made mistakes, and for me, the biggest one just happens to be one that I think a lot of teachers make when they first start teaching. In the beginning, we have a tendency to take things the students do or say personally. When in fact, quite often, it’s NOT about us.

Because of this, there were times when I found myself getting into a “power struggle” with a student over something they might have said or done that I felt was disrespectful. In those instances, even if I was totally justified in wanting to redirect or scold the student, the way in which I did so was not the most gracious nor professional.

It’s very easy to be sucked into a back and forth verbal confrontation with a student we feel is being unruly. However, it is important that we keep our composure at all times. This can be very difficult when you feel you are being disrespected by a 13-year-old. Sometimes, the natural “human” response is to insult right back, but this solves nothing. In fact, it does more harm to your credibility and regard with the other students who may be watching. And … they are always watching.

In those instances, it is important that teachers have strategies to de-escalate the situation. Thankfully, I was able to attend professional development and read books on topics from PBIS and effective classroom management to mindfulness that greatly helped me. I learned that for many students, it’s much easier and more important for them to “save face” in front of their peers rather than back down from a volatile situation with an adult, so being mentally present enough to offer that student an “out” before they take things too far is a skill that many educators could benefit from. By remaining calm, or at least maintaining the appearance of calmness, a teacher can set a positive example for students and keep themselves from going viral on social media in an unflattering video recorded by onlookers.

For me, over time, I learned to recognize when I found myself becoming irritated with a student and would simply say, “I’m about solutions, and right now, in this current state of heightened emotions, neither of us is able to make good decisions. Let’s come back to this in five minutes or so and see if we can come to a better resolution.” At that moment, I was giving the student and myself a safe “out.” I was giving myself time to remember that the rational part of this tiny human’s brain is NOT fully developed, so it was on ME to be the reasonable one in the situation. Although it may be hard to believe, that simple phrase worked every single time. It’s also important to note that I had built positive relationships with my students, and that undoubtedly played a huge role in its success.

Everyone makes mistakes, even teachers. How you handle them is the true reflection of what you’ve learned from those mistakes in the past and more importantly, the example you set for your students.

‘Be Kind’

A former independent school English teacher and administrator, Stephanie Farley is a writer and educational consultant working with teachers and schools on issues of curriculum, assessment, instruction, SEL, and building relationships. Her book, Joyful Learning: Tools to Infuse Your 6-12 Classroom with Meaning, Relevance, and Fun is available from Routledge Eye on Education:

The mistakes that still make my stomach hurt when I think about them are the moments when I failed to be kind. Unfortunately, I’ve had many such moments: a sharpness in my tone when answering a question; a thoughtless, unsolicited remark about someone’s outfit that was meant to be positive but instead made that kid self-conscious; and, early in my career, saying no to students who wanted to retake a failed quiz.

What I learned from these moments is that I sleep better when I act with compassion instead of thoughtlessness. Consequently, I slowed down my response time so that I had 10 seconds to think before I did or said anything. In that 10 seconds, I played out possibilities … the garden of forking paths! Which of my choices not only yielded the result I sought but also made the other person feel seen and cared for? While it took some practice, the results were worth it. My words were curious and kind rather than querulous, measured rather than impulsive.

I also learned that it wasn’t a big deal to allow students to retake quizzes; in truth, the point of the quiz was to demonstrate mastery of a skill or content. The number of attempts was inconsequential. So, I changed my entire grading system: I moved to a highest grade = term grade model; removed quizzes from the term grade; and taught students how to evaluate themselves. A happy result was that students were far less stressed in my class and, in fact, they said that they liked being there!

Self-Care

Jay Schroder has taught high school English and social studies for 24 years. He’s the author of Teach from Your Best Self: A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving in the Classroom and received both the Oregon Council of Teachers of English and the National Council of Teachers of English High School Teacher of Excellence Awards:

As a teacher, I have made mistakes of all kinds, but one mistake in particular was career changing. It taught me so much that I don’t think of it as a mistake. This mistake humbled me; it cracked me open to see something that transformed my approach to teaching.

I was a first-year teacher. My heroes were my former English professors. Besides their cool tweed style and pipe tobacco aroma, I loved the way they would leave comments in the margins of my papers. For me, these were breadcrumbs that I’d follow deeper into learning. Once I became a high school English teacher, I wanted to be like them and leave wise, encouraging bread crumbs in the margins of my students’ papers.

It was a Sunday in October. I had just assigned the first essay of the year and had collected the papers the previous Friday. The day was splendid, leaves bursting with color; the sun was warm but the air was crisp—cool as an apple from the refrigerator. An ideal day for a bicycle ride or a walk in the park. I briefly stepped onto the front porch after breakfast and took a deep breath of fall and then turned back into the house. I opened my messenger bag and pulled out several fat folders filled with student papers.

I read slowly and meticulously, using pencil so I could erase, trying to leave comments that had just the right tone, the right balance of encouragement and guidance. I worked through morning, afternoon, and was still at it after dark.

The next day, I handed back the essays. I watched for my students to read the notes I had left them, anticipating the lights going on behind their eyes, the quiet indications of “I see” and “aha.” Instead, they glanced at the grade, briefly flipped through the pages and jammed the essays into their back packs.

I was stunned. I had given up a Sunday, agonizing over those comments. They didn’t even read them.

In those days, I would often walk over to a colleague’s room at the end of the day. She was also new and, just like me, was having a rough go of it. Often, I’d find her crying at her desk. It helped to know we weren’t entirely alone in our struggles, but still, teaching was hard, and she would be gone by the next year.

If I were to keep making the mistake of sacrificing myself to be the kind of teacher I thought I should be, I’d be at risk of burning out and leaving the profession myself.

I started evaluating all of my teaching strategies through the economic lens of return on investment (ROI), striving for minimum investments of my time, energy, and attention for maximum learning gains.

Over the years, I discovered that what mattered most was not the methods, techniques, assessments, texts, or applications of technology that seemed so important to my administrators, but rather, the way I related to my students, how I greeted them, listened to them, and whether or not I was rested and relaxed or frazzled and exhausted. I learned that my well-being actually mattered—not just for me but for my students as well.

My “mistake” had given me a north star to follow which has helped me avoid becoming another teaching leaving the profession.

Since I began in 1999, teaching has gotten even harder. I dare say, to do what we are expected to do under the conditions in which we work is frequently impossible.

As awesome as teachers are, not even teachers can do the impossible.

But we can bring creativity to discover new approaches, ones that are less expensive for us and good for students.

After this career altering “mistake,” I stopped taking work home and started grading papers collaboratively with my students sitting next to me. I became their “learning ally” and, astonishingly, even when I asked them to rewrite, they quite often thanked me. I still had a long way to go to learn how to incorporate ROI into my teaching, but it was a start.

My “mistake” made me a better teacher and probably saved my career.

Thanks to Cindy, Chandra, Stephanie, and Jay for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s guests answered this question:

What are the biggest mistakes you have made as a teacher, and what did you learn from it?

In Part One, K. Renae Pullen, Kayla Towner, Neven Holland, and Diana Laufenberg shared their experiences.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

Leaders

It was the middle of the day, and not one seat in Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary School’s auditorium remained empty. Parents, grandparents, aunts, and...

Leaders

How often should parents and teachers communicate? That’s the question at the center of a growing push for technology that allows parents constant access...

Leaders

Parents are their children’s first teachers. It’s a common saying, but what does it actually mean for schools? Traditionally, parents’ undeniable and critical role...

Leaders

Yahaira Rodriguez wants to be a teacher when she grows up. At home, the 5th grader uses her younger brother’s stuffed animals to create...