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Teachers: How would you/ would you speak about your past mistakes and failures to your students?

I feel as though kids need to know it is OK to talk about and learn from mistakes. However, the pressure put on both students and teachers NOT to make mistakes leads to test and performance anxiety. How do you deal with mistakes in your classroom?

I think of the movie Meet the Robinsons when I think of this topic and have used it in the past.

  • Apr 28 2012: The question you should ask is WHY. Why would you speak about your past mistakes? You are there to educate and you need to establish a personal relationship in order to educate your charges. But what makes you think they are interested in your failures? If you have a clear indication that they are, you still need to know why are they interested. If you then also have a clear indication that they are interested for reasons relating to their own development and avoidance of mistakes, then you still need to ask yourself, how best to address those needs and interests. Most of the time, talking about yourself is not even close to the top seventeen ways to address those interests. The worst teachers in the world talk incessantly about themselves, make the class about themselves, measure their students on their ability to be similar to themselves (as the teacher), and fail to see or hear the other people in the room clearly as distinctly significant individuals. IF, after years of thought,you successfully answer WHY talk about yourself, then you are ready for the question of HOW.
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    Apr 10 2012: True learning is not possible without mistakes of some kind. Mistakes are often associated with failure and both of these have a negative connotation for a large population of most people. However, as humans we learn best through natural mistakes and associated "failures". I do not think anyone would argue that "learning is not memorization of facts but rather the process by which we construct meaning, purpose and function of facts". Keeping with this idea we must realize that as educators one of primary responsibilities is to make education meaningful, appropriate and personal for the students and communities we serve.
    Within this context I think that the acknowledgment of past mistakes are critical for an educator in the classroom. Whether they are academic mistakes ("I used have trouble with long division and failed math in 5th grade") to social isues ("I know what its like to be bullied"). This personal account of mistakes encountered in a teachers past are essential for trust, engagement and buy in from the student body. I assume that most students in the U.S. do not want to sit and be lectured to by an academic instructor who appears holier than you. Instead, students want REAL people to help them learn, people with feelings, people with knowledge, people with passion and yes....people who make mistakes.
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    Apr 10 2012: When feeling get aroused within the classroom, both students and teachers might say something they will regret later. My advice to teachers is to talk about past mistakes in the third person. Do not identify yourself s the one who made a specific mistake, even if - especially if - it seems humorous to do so at the moment. When students get angry, as anybody might, they can be heartless in their criticism of each other or their teachers.
    So, don't set yourself up by telling the students how you messed up. Instead, tell them what happened to someone you know, or about something you read. If they find out that you had premarital sex, got drunk at a party, lied to your best friend, cheated on a test, or any of the other mistakes that people can make, they will put that information to use when they are angry and want to hurt you. And, they will exaggerate it way beyond what you actually told them. If you did it once, then of course you did it all the time, and still do it all the time. If you got drunk at a party and danced on the table with a lampshade on your head, then of course you are a drunk, or worse.
    One of the signs of growing up is the wisdom to know that what you say can hurt people. One of the signs of adolescence is the misuse of that knowledge to actually hurt people. It is one of the stresses that teachers have to face and minimize in their classroom. So, don't provide the student who might want to 'get even' with you in the future with something hurtful to say about you.
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    Apr 10 2012: I actually like to make some mistakes on purpose to see if my students catch them or not. If they do, I give them positive reinforcement and if they don't, I try to lead them to what the mistake was so that it can be fixed. I love talking to my students about my past mistakes in order to encourage them to not fall into the same problems that I did. They appreciate my honesty with them and like that I talk to them as young adults, and not just young children. My students range from 12 to 14 and they change so much during the year or two that I have them, they need someone to talk openly and respectfully with them about their concerns and issues. To me, it is the advice I can give them that is sometimes way better than the grammar/writing lesson that I might have planned for them.
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    Apr 7 2012: I admit mistakes to my students that are appropriate for their age and maturity. I share some past mistakes as lessons to the students to not repeat what I have done but go beyond it and do better. I admit errors in spelling and even reward students who catch them when I create power points or write on the board. Do you think they are looking at what I have written? You bet they are and they learn in spite of themselves. I also feel free to write silly answers to multiple choice questions and then let them get a laugh out of the questions. It reduces stress of testing and I have noticed they really pay attention to the questions. I would love to say test scores zoomed up but they did not they just stayed the same as always but they left the test with something to talk about and laugh about. It will stick in their memory.
  • Apr 7 2012: I talk to them straight out about some of my biggest mistakes, and about mistakes I had made when I was a student myself. I try and make them notice that I am still there, and that making such mistakes did not affect my self-esteem, and helped me mature and grow. That I learned some good lessons. Regarding questions in class, I tell them that had I not made many pretty silly questions, I would know but a fraction of what I know now. I also insist that I keep making mistakes and that I am fine with it. Every time we touch a topic I found ridiculous the first time I heard about it, and I was wrong, I tell them so ...
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    Apr 7 2012: Yes....I feel the purpose of a teacher is to enable a student to try, boldly.

    The inherent problem with traditional education system is it passively teaches fear towards failure.

    When children see their teachers as perfect beings, their aspiration to be such adults who never seem to fail, will only put them in a fake environment. That is one reason, most of the students during their early job days are easily intimidated and / or too cautious to participate even in conversations.

    On the other hand, if a teacher discusses his/her mistakes in the past and how he avoided dangers or disasters, it prepares children not only to try new things but also about how t be cautious before trying risky things....
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    May 6 2012: Professionally not a teacher, but a teacher of the "streets". We need to open discussion about areas of mistakes and areas of improvement, and this allows students to close the gap of teachers can't be students, vice versa. Learning comes full circle, I believe, and building a relationship with your students will create a safe environment for open discussion and stating our own mistakes as teachers is a great tool for teaching. I would, and do, speak about my own mistakes to my "students", and I hope that we could both learn something new after our discussions.

    You speak about your mistakes and failures by realizing that perfection unattainable and that all is rubbish. We need to trust in each other, and build some bridges to have a path to convey the messages that seem so distant at first. After that, the message of failure and mistakes are "okay" will come naturally through stating it and intending within your discussions with students.
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    May 5 2012: mistakes = learning. And as educators, we're in the business of learning.
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    May 5 2012: I totally agree with Ken Robinson (Do schools kill creativity). He says in the Western Europe we blame each other for mistakes, but why? You have to make mistakes before creating something wonderful. So talk about mistakes and in my opinion: tell students what you learned from your own mistakes!
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    May 3 2012: Stop seeing them as mistakes for starters. Errors in knowledge are just 'things they don't know yet'. Errors in the performance of skills are 'things that you can learn to do well with practise'. Change your language and you will find the students' self-esteem and confidence will increase. And failure - not a word in my teaching vocabulary - is 'not having succeeded yet!'
  • May 2 2012: I have moved from a knowledge/skills based program to a more exploratory inquiry model so students think in terms of curiosity, assumptions, tentative thinking, and implications for action so 'mistake' is not a concept we deal with. Exploring is coming to understand not coming to know. It requires new language, a new relationship between teacher and student and a new relationship between student and the curriculum. Assessment is performance based and an authentic opportunity for students to apply new understanding and skill in real situations that generate new curiosities that initiate new learning cycles. Students are able to take risks in their thinking and have the courage to move to new territory in their learning without the anxiety you speak of..
  • May 2 2012: I think most students understand that it is okay to make mistakes, and as an art teacher it is easy to identify the few students that are perectionists/affaid of making mistakes. These students can be encouraged on an individual basis. They are the students that are asking for help every step of the way, work slowly, are easily frustrated, constantly erase and rework their work, etc.... For example, this year I had a high school student cry because they were so frustrated with their work. I approached the student, and had her use the restroom to compose herself. When she returned, I offered some help and suggestions. She is a talented girl, but I know she really struggles with making mistakes (not sure if the pressure is intrinsic or extrisic). I shared that I have mistakes/flaws in every piece of art I have ever made, that her friends make mistakes as well. I also recognized that doesn't make mistakes any easier to except. Mistakes are unavoidable and what matters is not making mistakes, but how we respond when a mistake has been made. After her mini-meltdown she has been better. She has not let mistakes bother her so much. Although she has told me that she has got emotional about making mistakes outside of art class.
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    Apr 28 2012: I think that children think they are unique, when they make mistakes it is a unique mistake and no one else knows the embarrasment that they are going through. If we as teachers can show the children that they arn't alone and that we too have made mistakes we can accomplish two things. Make the children comfortable about themselves and make the mistakes a learning tool.
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    Apr 22 2012: Your title and you explaination are different. First: As a teacher I would not divulge my personal life and mistakes with students. I do not see a purpose in it and it could turn very nasty after being embellished a few times. Instead why not offer some situations and follow them to a natural conclusion. Revisit and amend until the desired outcome is achieved. Would you like the students to know that your union caused the collaspe of the US Postal service by passing a prepaid retirement plan that the postal service cannot meet and has caused bankrupcy. Of course not they would hate you. Some things are better kept quiet.

    Part two was how do you deal with mistakes in the classroom? I have always found that being open and honest are the best paths to follow. That way you do not have to remember the lies you told.

    Now a question for you. You are not a teacher (your bio above). What has occured that needs addressed? The answers you receive would be more to the point if you disclosed the real question. Bob.
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    Apr 21 2012: In most cases, I believe it is a great idea to accept your failures in front of your students, and then describe how life was after the failures. Explain how had you not failed, you would have not learnt and how the failure actually led to internal transformation within you.

    I remember not doing well in an exam, and I told my students of how that failure made me more determined to reach my goal in my next attempt. And it reverberated with some of my students, and helped them become more determined themselves.

    Accepting your failures leads to 2 things - students understanding that failures are normal and be more accepting of them, and establishing a comfort zone between you and your students where open communication is encouraged and mutual learning starts taking place. Afterall, the biggest advantage of the teaching profession is that you have so many students to learn from :-)
  • Apr 19 2012: Great and loaded question. To limit the venue to teaching professionally brings out responses like Jon Miner below, which limits exposure to negative impact from being truthfull, at the time that developing minds need to be cultivated in core values like trust. When do you tell the whole thuth to anyone at any level ? When the lawyers say it can't be used against you ? Sadly, that is the way it is in most of our current society, Are there risks ? of course. The last 3 presidents (mostly) admitted to smoking pot at some point. I see how the honesty regarding those "mistakes" scarred them for life. Lead by example, and teach the values, the curriculum will be a fortunate by-product.
  • Apr 14 2012: curriculum of a teacher should incorporate the life lessons of the teacher but not as a personnel involvement it should be used as a third party observation you are dealing with people who should be made aware of what lies ahead both the rewards and the pitfalls and should be taught how to deal with both a teacher should feel confident and hopeful that what was taught will be utilized to help accomplish and sustain them on their chosen path
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    Apr 11 2012: I don't train children; I train adults on new software they will be using in their office. There is always someone who is totally intimidated by the software. I sometimes think it helps them to see that the trainer, the supposed expert, also makes mistakes. I let them know how I struggled with the program when it was new because I didn't have anyone who could train me, and I'm giving them the benefit of my 'oops' moments. Inevitably, I find they know something about the software - a trick, a shorcut - that I didn't know. I believe it helps when the students, no matter their age, know their teacher is just as vulnerable as they are to making mistakes. The trick is knowing how to correct them.
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    Apr 10 2012: Great question, I positively promote the circumstances by which my students can succeed and FAIL in equal measure. Failure is essential for growth.I believe we all (not just children) can only feel free to make mistakes when we feel SAFE in an environment or situation. Essentially when we all feel safe to stretch our ability and performance potential BEYOND what we can currently do, we are taking risk and this can lead to anxiety is not properly managed, however , when it is managed well it leads to incredible magic moments in learning and achievement. For teachers to create the right conditions for students to feel this safety is one of the MOST important things we must do. The most fulfillment I see students achieve is when they push outside their comfort zone and see what is possible for themselves. If this contains some level of failure, it's my job to be there for them, reassure and build up their confidence to go for it again, and again....
  • Apr 10 2012: David, are you concerned about mistakes in general, or are you more concerned with reducing test and performance anxiety, and therefore want pointers in order to help your students be relaxed during testing?

    And what part of Meet the Robinsons ties in with your question?

    And, finally, what grade level are you talking about?
  • Apr 10 2012: Mistakes are easily corrected with knowledge whereas failures can lead to a path of enlightenment if one pursues guidance to the knowledge of self.
    As a teacher, I believe it to be important to distinguish between making a mistake and errant behavior. An august individual once told me, "If one has the potential to share experience, strength and hope then the time to proceed could be at hand. Without all three, then one can only spread the experience at best."
  • Apr 7 2012: I would rather make mistakes necessary to the learning process. Being to guarded, and methodical can stifle innovation, can lessen the flowing that makes learning natural and easy. Not that a focus on failure or mistakes need be a focal point in the learning process, but is a necessary point of the learning process. Were there to be stress for testing, teach students that being relaxed and rhythmic in the learning process is a very important. Keeping an internal beat, that enables one to flow through a process, able to return later. Teach that as individuals, they have a unique mixture of learning styles and should explore multiple methods, stages, steps, processes and to create a mixture of those that serve the problems they are approaching. That facility with multiple stages, steps processes for learning, while there may never be a perfect one for all situations, will allow them naturally and rhythmically to move in their nature to the right one that solves the problem that they are reviewing. I emphasize rhythm, as rhythm, although I am not a musician, has always allow me to flow around, over or under obstacles in the processes that I was moving through. You are familiar with Kolb, I believe he is useful, also De Bono, read his books not simply the 6 thinking hats, lateral thinking. I would build into your practice a mixture, and focus, on craft and creativity, science and intuition. I would stress critical thinking and remember that there is only so much time. You do not need, it is not practical or a proper use of time, to correct each and every mistake. Rather, say something like close and reiterate what your learning point was. Remember the structure of the content is more important than minute details. Build the structure for them, and create processes for them to complete it. Do not fear for their grades. Teach them that they are the primary driver of their learning experience. They are responsible, capable, and able to excel while enjoying
  • Apr 7 2012: I find it easy to apologize and correct mistakes when I make one. I reward students that point out one for me eg a tipeo or spelling mistake. If I lose my tempter with the class I apologize etc... I tell them about the subjects I failed at school and how I aced them at university to highlight how some things don't come easy the first time round but it's worth have another go, as sometimes the penny drops and you just get it.
    You always need to be honest, my students seem to have the best BS detectors, if you are not they lose respect for you straight away and switch off.
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    Apr 7 2012: Some of an adult's mistakes, those of a personal nature, are probably best left out of classroom discussion. Misconceptions we used to hold about the subject matter we are teaching, on the other hand, are ideal to share. Identifying typical errors, as in: where do you think are the easiest places to make an error in this kind of problem? is an excellent vehicle for conveying the idea that errors are common and that we should all expect to make them.As important, I believe, is not acting like we know everything. When a student asks a question to which we do not know the answer, too many people answer something anyway. It would be much better to admit needing time to think about it or to check on the answer. This problem of providing answers with an air of authority even when a person has no expertise in an area is not exclusive to teaching, of course.
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    Apr 7 2012: Someone once said "Making new mistakes means you're trying something new and isn't that learning?"

    I encourage having a go with the expectation of screwing up. I freely admit when I'm wrong, don't know something, and so on, but also model a way to fix the situation/learn/find alternative solutions rather than give up or kick myself for being "wrong".

    To quote John and Paul: "And it really doesn't matter if I'm wrong I'm right
    Where I belong I'm right
    Where I belong." Fixing A Hole.
  • Apr 7 2012: David
    I recently finished my student teaching in an urban community and came to a few realizations about this.
    People are not perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has done something bad (degrees differ). To pretend or say otherwise is lying, manipulative, and harmful to students. If students think that to be normal you have to be perfect you hurt their self esteem, self worth, and they negatively (and constantly) question themselves. Keeping a no-talk policy about mistakes encourages students to manipulate and lie.

    I believe, as people, we should be open with each other (teacher and student.) Also, the strict boundaries of teacher/students encourage obedience and submissiveness. Perfect little drones. I think this is detrimental to society and the human kind, we are all sentient and have the ability to make our own decisions.

    With this view,
    I was extremely open with my students. I broke down to distance between teacher and student and talked with them much more relaxed. A student was caught smoking pot... He asked if only bad people smoked ?... People that have something wrong with them... I responded "Do you think I'm bad?" ... pause... "Well I've smoked before too, so if your bad them I'm bad too"
    Lying or denying the student in this case would have hurt him even more. He was confused, looking for answers, looking for assurance. USING SIMPLY THE TRUTH I was able to do this. Protocol, however, would have said my actions were wrong; telling the truth.
    I believe it is, as teachers, our duty to address mistakes and debunk them. Face it, mistakes are how we learn, innovate, refine, and create progress. It is central to human existence, why try and skew it? In the correct context, absence of fear of mistakes, makes the strongest learner, individual, and perceiver of knowledge.
    With this justification, I do not fear caving to these pressures of tests, standards blah blah blah. And with students starting to follow this thought, guess where scores went?