Learn from your mistakes

If you are a new teacher, you’ll be making lots (and lots) of mistakes. Don’t worry about it. You’ll not only survive them, you’ll learn from them and if you reflect on them honestly, you’ll be a better teacher for them too.

Most mistakes will be small and inconsequential – like losing a child’s homework or confusing the names of twins. The kids won’t care, so neither should you. “Learn from your mistakes” should be a maxim for teachers and children alike.

Occasionally though, you’ll make a bad mistake and wonder why you ever wanted to teach in the first place, have a sleepless night about it and think that your fledgling teaching career lies in tatters on the classroom floor.

Don’t.

Mistakes are a natural part of learning. If you never make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough or taking necessary risks to become the teacher you deserve to be.

There are very few mistakes you can’t recover from. Even bad ones.

Here’s my evidence.

My first year in teaching was with a difficult Year 6 class – at least I thought so at the time. Trying to get them to line up for assembly, leave the classroom in an orderly manner or raise their hand before shouting out answers was my daily diet of psychological torture.

To my mind, water-boarding ran only a close second to the turmoil I endured taking the kids to the weekly swimming lesson at the local pool. First the school bus driver gave me withering looks at my lack of natural ability to assert my authority with them. Then when we got there, the kids made a habit of mischievously jumping straight in to the pool as soon as they were changed. So the swimming instructor would start the lesson by balling at them at the top of his voice what “hopeless, useless articles” they were – but all the time looking straight at me.

One week I made an issue of warning the kids not to jump in the pool before the lesson began. I warned them in the classroom before we left school. I warned them on the bus on the way to the pool. And I warned them again as we entered the changing rooms.

I think you know what’s coming…

Sure enough, within seconds of me going in to a locker and starting to change myself I heard delighted shouts, screams of children jumping in the water. By the time I opened the changing room door more than half a dozen were already splashing about laughing and giggling.

That was it. I flipped.

“Right!” I shouted at the whole class, including the twenty odd assembled innocently sitting at the side of the pool, “Out! Everybody out! Everybody get changed right now! We are not having another swimming lesson until you can all learn how to behave yourselves properly… blah, blah, blah…”

They weren’t listening. The mood changed instantly. A sombre, seething pall of anger, bitterness – even hatred – exuded from them at the injustice of a naked act of collective punishment. There was total silence getting changed and getting back on the bus – for once.

But it doesn’t take long before children start singing songs on buses. This one was a simple, well known refrain… you probably know the tune… sing-a-long if you like… it goes like this…

“We hate you Newland, oh yes we do! We hate you Newland, oh yes we do!

We hate you Newland, we do! Oh Newland WE HATE YOU!”

I think, by the sound of it, every child was singing it at the top of their voice.

That night I went home exhausted, hating school, hating teaching and I admit it – hating those bloody kids. I was convinced they had it in for me. The little swines – as I thought of them that night – had ground my lofty idealism to dust in the space of a few months. After an almost sleepless night I got up the next morning with a foreboding dread, wondering what new tortures awaited me.

On the bus to school I dreamed longingly of being a shelf-stacker at Sainsbury’s…

Over a coffee in the staff room I confided the incident to the worldly but sympathetic ear of my colleague Olive – a hugely talented and experienced Reception class teacher. She gave me a forgiving look and said: “When you go in there this morning, tell the whole class you are going to do two things: First – you are going to apologise to all those children you punished who didn’t deserve to miss their swimming lesson. Secondly, but without threat, just tell them that you’ll do exactly the same thing next week and every week until they all get the message.”

Next week went like a dream. They had learned a lesson. I felt like a teacher in command.

And though I made many more mistakes that year… and every year… I had learned an important lesson too.

Got any mistakes you can compare to that? Let me know…

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then at the DfE and GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  He is available for his “inspirational and very funny” interactive sessions with students, trainees and NQTs (contact him on Twitter). His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.

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10 thoughts on “Learn from your mistakes

  1. Great blog again . Lovely story . Can’t imagine how you must of felt with the bus songs, haha. Just shows that resilience is a great attribute to have as a teacher .

    1. Thanks Craig. I can tell you I felt like I had totally lost it, but once they knew I was prepared to do exactly the same thing again, they accepted that I was going to assert my authority come what may – and of course, that’s exactly what they really want – a teacher who is in command. They want to be directed and led. The last thing they want is a teacher who can’t control the class enough to teach them anything, which is of course why so many adults remember with affection the teachers who were “strict”.

      Anyway the big lesson for everyone here is that there are very few mistakes you can’t recover from – so go for it and make lots of them – you’ll learn so much more that way. Good Luck..!

  2. Wonderful article. I laughed out of my chair when you longed to be a shelf stacker at Sainsbury. Even though we don’t use the term here or have the store I got it. It just sounds better in British English. Very funny, very true. I have four children and taught so mistakes are part of the learning process What is the core. love and compassion and “Newland” you have it

  3. I love it, making mistakes has seemingly been my gospel this week…. I feel like this is something they didn’t dwell enough on during my four years at uni. I’ve just finished up my first week as a graduate teacher at a remote indigenous school in the Northern Territory of Australia and I feel like I’ve been playing ‘hit and miss’ for the last week, with far more misses… Everything from my planning, class room management even to the set up of my classroom has changed because what I thought was effective teaching doesn’t always correlate to effective practise.

    Apart from realising ‘wet day timetable’ does not carry overy to the tropics, not getting enough tucker for the kids, taking them to the wrong specialist, calling a boy a girl and vice versa; my ultimate mistake has been not being honest with the kids and giving them the opportunity to trust me… I think I went in there all guns blazing without realising that ‘my classroom’ isn’t entirely mine … I forget without the kids I wouldn’t have a class or job for that matter… I feel like I haven’t given them the opportunity to take ownership of their own space let alone their learning. The issue I’ve found though is because I’m teaching in an indigenous envrionment, the kids aren’t necessarily used to boundaries, rules and regulations and only accomodate them where a ‘Balanda’ (person not from the area) is concerned. In saying this I’m swamped by anxiety because I feel like I have to re-invent the wheel everytime I take a lesson.

    Similarly there are some great role models here at the school and I know what effective teaching, practice and learning looks like but I can’t see myself in this manner without changing who I am. Especially when the two teachers I venerate are a burly Kiwi P.E teacher and an older Indigenous lady who has confidence and assertion coming out of her pores… neither of whom I am.

    I’m all for making mistakes but given its close to 11pm on a school night I feel like the only outcomes I’m managed in the last week have been to guarantee mistakes and while for the most part I’ve been able to reflect on them and learn from them so to speak… what do you do when you’re so zapped you have no productive energy left to make good?

    1. Hi Michelle Rebecca – what a great post! You give us all a very vivid account of what’s going on in your life right now – in an area of the world few of us have any experience of – it sounds absolutely fascinating – and you are right, you are in a very priviliged position. But you are also right in that you are trying to run before you can walk and getting zapped won’t help anyone. Can I just remind you of one thing: you have only been teaching a week..! Give yourself a chance..!

      Look, here’s two pieces of immediate advice: first, watch and learn from those two experienced role model teachers you refer to. Emulate and imitate them, copy and steal their ideas and behaviours – that’s why they are role models – so you can ‘model’ their ‘role’, but you don’t have to change your personality to do that. Second, get some regular sleep and eating habits in to your routines – this will enable you to re-charge your batteries every day. And here’s a third one for good luck – forgive yourself when you screw up..!

      Go to bed and have a great day tomorrow. Let me know how it goes and Good Luck..!

  4. Hey, bravo to you, Michelle Rebecca. And you’re coping with that extreme weather. I was in the NT last year, in June – bliss – and during the ‘build up’ – September. I could barely function, let alone attempt to teach. My sister is a secondary teacher in Humpty Doo and I don’t know how she does it. The same goes for you. Keep up the good work. My life is a comparative breeze – often literally – in a Melbourne secondary school. Great post, Michelle Rebecca.

    And great dialogue created, Mr Newland. Admire your honesty, something that seems to be lacking in many of my colleagues, who are often trying to pretend they know it all, or so it seems to me.

    I’ve felt that ‘wall of hate’ a handful of times over the years. It’s usually been because I’ve been out of line – overly harsh, perhaps, or using my ‘dark sarcasm’ when things got out of control because I really lost my temper, as opposed to acting like I had. Find the genuine apology to the kids for my transgression – and kids know what’s happening; they can spot a good teacher – usually does the trick.

    That and my sense of humour. I’m just not the type of personality who can overpower kids. As I say to them, they can overpower me any time. But they rarely do. Basically, if I’m not having fun in the classroom, they’re not either. They don’t have to love the subject I teach – English – but at least I don’t have to bore them to death for 3 x 75 minutes a week.

    Cheers to NQTs, as you call them in the UK. Stick with it if you can. Often I can’t believe I’m being paid because I love my job, subject and most students. (However, I hate marking, meetings and ‘pole climbers’ – but that’s another story.) If you find you can’t cope, leave the profession and get another job. Nothing worse than those who hate teaching and kids but stick with it to pay off their mortgages.

    1. Thank you Fraudster – that’s a great compliment, thank you. I think you raise an interesting issue about ‘honesty’ in professionalism and the degree to which people feel they can express opinions that are contrary to the current accepted ethos or dogma. I make no overtly political point here because I think these things are cyclical. I can remember when the ‘ethos’ and ‘dogma’ that I subscribed to was in the ascendant and I could tell there were colleagues who felt relatively silenced and marginalised by not subscribing to it. But it is interesting that professionalism in teaching is affected by cycles of ‘dogma’ – and it’s an issue I’ve raised in other blogs (such as ‘Does teaching have universal values’). Whether we like it or not – teaching is a fundamentally ‘political’ activity.

      Thanks again for your compliments and your contributions to the blogs.

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