Learning from mistakes

12 Nov 2021

‘Teacher Resilience: Managing stress and anxiety to thrive in the classroom’ came out a year ago today. This is a chapter for anyone who, like me, feels they have already made a hundred mistakes since this academic year started!

Anxious anecdote

As the class rampaged out of the door, a huge sigh of relief escaped from Darrol. To say the lesson had been a disaster would be the understatement of the year. 

Period 5 on a Friday was not the place, he now knew, to try a collaborative activity for the first time with this class. The revolving group task had degenerated into a revolving group chat, with young people gleefully leaping from one off-task conversation to another.

As he surveyed the bomb site of a classroom, Darrol knew that Monday’s lesson was going to involve something very quiet indeed.

When the English teacher Chris Curtis set up his blog, Learning From My Mistakes, almost 10 years ago, he didn’t expect it to be quite so successful. Now, with more than a million views and the publication of a superb book, How to Teach English, Chris is one of the most popular educational bloggers in the UK.

The introduction to his blog illustrates why his writing is so popular:

“Welcome to my blog. It is a ‘warts and all’ view of my teaching career. Hopefully, some of my thoughts will inspire you. Or, they will prevent you from making some of the mistakes I have made in the past.”

His humility is refreshing. Far too often, in any career, we sweep our errors under the proverbial carpet and pretend that the “warts” don’t exist. Our social media age almost demands that we project an image of cool perfection and triumphant success, yet neither is the reality for anyone. Through his writing, Chris wants to reflect carefully on how we can improve and to recognise that mistakes are an essential part of being human. When I asked him how this philosophy had helped him in his own teaching career, he was very clear:

“When I started my English PGCE course, I was surprised by the confidence of many around me. I was a ‘mature student’ and everybody else was much younger and more confident than I was. Vividly, I recall a moment when one student professed, in a discussion, that they saw teaching as a shortterm thing and that they planned to teach for a few years and then become a consultant. I was impressed and amazed by their gumption, but realised that all of that had been crushed out of me.

For two years previously, I had worked in a job where I was constantly belittled and made to work excessively hard, while my manager did no work at all and planned his weekend activities. He was of the thinking that leaders don’t work, they just tell people what to do. As a result, all my confidence was sapped and leached out of me. I was made to feel worthless on a regular basis, until I told him I didn’t want, or need, his job any more.

Becoming a teacher was a new career and direction for me. I started from a very humble position. My experience from my previous job told me I was far from the best at things, so I was ready to admit my mistakes or errors. I was ready to say when I didn’t understand things. I was ready to ask for help, when I needed it.

Being a teacher is a tricky thing. You need confidence to stand before a group of teenagers, but you also need humility to learn from the processes and things that happen in the classroom. It is a balancing act between confidence and humility. At the centre of this are the mistakes we make and continue to make. I say we need more confidence in showing humility – that was the impetus for my blog. I wasn’t hearing people talk about their mistakes. I wasn’t hearing people describe the things that didn’t work. I wasn’t hearing about the failures in the classroom. Instead, all I was hearing about were the miraculous things that people did.

Teaching is a hard job, but it is even harder when people pretend it is something else. When they gloss over the mistakes, errors and problems; when they present it as magic. That is unrealistic and damaging. The mistakes are hidden in teaching. Therefore, every NQT makes the same mistakes, because nobody is bold enough to speak out about them. We’ve got to a point in education where ‘mistakes’ are seen as a personal flaw and not a process that needs refining or reflecting. We have personalised teaching to the extent where we can’t tell the difference between teacher and teaching.

As a leader of my subject, I openly talk about my mistakes in lessons. How else can I get the people around me to reflect on what does and doesn’t work? If I am honest, then they can be honest, too. Learning from your mistakes is something we expect from students, yet we rarely model it to students in what we do.”

Perfectionism

Learning to accept our mistakes is a vital part of developing resilience. Those who try to do everything perfectly and are terrified of failure will, of course, find themselves immobilised by their fear of getting things wrong. Their inner critic will dominate.

Ironically, this fear of failure can be strongest among those who have never experienced failure. Their identity is so bound up with being successful that any misstep is a terrifying prospect – one that might lead to a complete loss of resilience. Instead of living in this way that limits us and holds us back, we need to recognise that setbacks are a part of life and mistakes are there to learn from.

Failure can happen no matter how hard you try to prevent it – knowing this will give you a healthier perspective that allows you to learn from your mistakes without letting them devastate you. A mistake can be unpleasant, embarrassing and even costly, but the resilience you gain from your inevitable errors will help you to draw even more fulfilment from your successes. Barack Obama, when looking back over his tenure as US president, said, “I’ve screwed up. I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls. And I emerged and I lived. And that’s always such a liberating feeling.”

Owning your mistakes

There is nothing worse than trying to pretend to ourselves or others that a mistake is not our fault. In order to use the mistake as a learning opportunity, we have to be ruthlessly honest. Sometimes we need to hold up our hands and seek help to deal with the consequences of a mistake. Honesty is always the best policy, and others will have more, not less, respect for us if we admit the truth.

After accepting what has happened, we need to create the time and space to reflect on the experience and identify what can be learned. Talking through what has happened with someone we trust is a useful way to put our reaction into perspective and prevent us from feeling overwhelmed. From this point, we can start to work to make things better and move forward.

We all have weaknesses and areas where we need to improve – we are only human. Mistakes allow us to see our weaknesses clearly and can help us to formulate a plan for how to improve. In 1919, Walt Disney was fired from one of his first jobs for – oh, the irony – a lack of creativity. His later success tells us that he reframed this early failure and turned it into a positive.

Classroom setbacks

We have spent hours constructing a masterpiece lesson, one we are confident meets the needs of every child in the class and will help them to finally get to grips with that challenging concept. Yet the reality does not live up to expectations: behaviour is poor and the students are no closer to grasping the concept. How do we cope with our inevitable feelings of frustration, resentment and dissatisfaction?

The classroom is never going to be a good place for a perfectionist – there are too many variables and so many different elements that can influence a class dynamic, everything from the time of day to the strength of the wind! We need to recognise that the lesson will never be perfect and we will likely never reach the lofty heights we strive for. Keep in mind the experience of your training year: how often did you spend hours preparing something that ultimately just didn’t work?

Experienced teachers will admit to cultivating a healthy degree of dispassion in their work. The issue with the scenario above is our level of emotional investment in the lesson, which is only to be expected after all the time and effort that went into constructing it. Experienced teachers are detached enough to apply a clinical level of honesty to their reflections on a poor lesson: what exactly went wrong? Internally castigating ourselves will not help the young people in front of us – we have to show the maturity to recognise our mistakes and work out how to stop them happening again.

Frustration can also come from the frequent battle of trying to encourage knowledge retention in our students. It is very easy to castigate the young people in front of us and become resentful of their inability to understand. A more resilient approach would be to give ourselves scope to reflect: we become empowered by looking at the different ways in which we could have explored the content. We can also keep reminding ourselves that even when things don’t go so well, there are positives to be found. As Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Plan

Rachel Ball is an assistant principal in charge of teaching and learning at an academy in Salford. She has teaching for almost 19 years and this year set up a blog with another teacher called The Educational Imposters. Rachel has kindly allowed me to reproduce here one of her first blog posts, entitled “How to fail as a teacher and leader”. It is an excellent account of the importance of failure and of how Rachel has used failure positively to become more resilient. Reading it reminded me of this Chinese proverb: “A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor a person perfected without trials.”

“Failure is something we all have in common. Whether it’s failure to pass a driving test, to break the 25-minute barrier on a 5K run, to win a coveted award, to keep the house tidy, or whether it’s more significant ‘ failures’ around relationships, children, friendships or work, we all experience failure.

One of my first failures in teaching was the failure to get a job. As the rest of my cohort all seemed to manage to secure positions, I went to a few interviews where it seemed I did well, often getting down to the last two applicants before not being chosen for the position. My references were good, I was told my lessons were good and yet time ticked on, and before I knew it, it was July and I still had nothing for September. I think one of the issues was that my subject of history is a popular one and jobs were not as easy to come by as in some subjects, but at the time I felt an overwhelming sense of failure. I couldn’t help but feel rejected, and it took me right back to never being picked for PE teams at school.

Interviews for me, as an introvert, are highly uncomfortable. I don’t like having to sell myself, I forget my achievements and dwell on my failures, and spend hours afterwards analysing what I’ve said. Perhaps my shyness came across in interview, or perhaps I just wasn’t a right fit for the schools I applied to. I will never know, but each and every one of those failed interviews taught me something, whether it was about lesson pitching, how much to attempt in a 20-minute lesson, experience of varied questions in interviews or just not to wear that particular skirt which digs in and makes you uncomfortable.

Ironically, when I eventually got a job in early July, I initially thought about not applying as the job was a 50% RE timetable and a temporary contract. I went along to the interview anyway, was honest and open and not as nervous as I had been in the others, and was offered the job straight away. Perhaps I had been trying too hard to fit in, perhaps I just found my groove, perhaps it was meant to be. Whatever the reason, I think I needed to experience that rejection before I got the job I did. It made me more appreciative of the responsibility I have as a teacher. It made me realise how important finding the right school for you is (when I look back, I don’t think some of those schools would have been) and it made me more determined to prove myself.

My second failure was around relationships with pupils – something I think many, if not all, of us experience. My first year was extremely difficult. Of course, I started the year full of great intentions to make a difference, to inspire and to be the next LouAnne Johnson or Erin Gruwell. I ended up with a very apathetic Year 9 form class who had already been passed from pillar to post and thought of me as just another short-term stop gap. I also taught them history as a form group, along with a couple of other groups who did everything they could to try and break me, it seemed.

Lessons were an exhausting hour and 20 minutes and on Thursday mornings I taught the two most difficult classes back-to-back in a double. By Thursday lunchtimes most weeks, you could find me crying at my desk convinced I would never make it through the year. I regularly considered whether teaching was right for me. It didn’t help that while I did have some support in the school, there were teachers who worked closely with me who did little to help, telling me I needed to toughen up and not spend so long on my lessons because ‘they’re not going to do it anyway’.

I think, looking back, I did toughen up – perhaps not in the way they expected. I raised my standards and kept them high. I stood my ground and worked on the little things like entrance to the lesson and routines for speaking in class. But more than that, I worked on relationships. I realised that these pupils needed to know I was invested in them, that I cared and that I believed in them. I spent time getting to know them, finding common ground and showing I had seen their potential. Relationships take time to develop and it was definitely not something that improved overnight. In fact, relationships are still something I need to work on even now, 19 years in.

But that initial year of seeming failure taught me so much about the the kind of environment I wanted my classroom to be, the kind of teacher I wanted to be and the support I wanted to be for colleagues going through an experience like mine in the future. I’m proud to say that many of those pupils, some of them now parents themselves, have been in touch over the years and have thanked me for believing in them and challenging them, opening up about tough times they were going through. You see, it was never really about me. It wasn’t personal – and that’s the other lesson I’ve taken away from that incredibly difficult year.

I always set out to be the best teacher I could be, but it’s only now, looking back, that I see another failure I had was in failing to understand how pupils actually learn, and therefore how best to teach them. To be fair, this probably was a failure of my training. Much as I enjoyed it, I don’t remember ever being taught about memory or cognitive load, and therefore how could I best structure my lessons to ensure that pupils would learn in the most efficient and effective way?

Over the years my head was swayed by the latest fashion in teaching: poundland pedagogy, Kagan, thinking hats, competition, VAK and limiting teacher talk to no more than five minutes (I was once timed at an interview). I vividly remember teaching some lessons using playdough, where I doubt pupils learnt anything at all, and got sucked into wanting my observations to always be ‘outstanding’ – I remember crying once when I only got ‘good’ (obviously knowing now these gradings mean absolutely nothing). for that challenge. Since then I’ve read a lot about authentic leadership and how being aware of your emotions and being honest about your weaknesses can be a positive thing as a leader, often strengthening people’s belief in you. Having gone through the experience of losing my dad, I hope that makes me a more empathetic and compassionate colleague and leader, but I also hope that next time I suffer in that way I’ll know showing grief or pain is not a weakness – that it is not something you can repress or bury. The last area of failure I have been reflecting on is my failure to have confidence and belief in my own capabilities, a topic I explored in my imposter syndrome blog post.21 As I mention in the blog, it’s hard to feel at times that you have something important to say, and in the world of teaching, particularly on Twitter, it’s easy for your voice to get drowned out, or not to have the confidence to say anything at all.

And yet it’s only over the past couple of years, when I have spent so much time investing in research and evidence-based practice, that I realise that much of what I had been doing was, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, overloading pupils’ cognitive load and preventing actual learning from taking place. Reading, among others, Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?, Tom Sherrington’s The Learning Rainforest and Rosenshine’s Principles in Action, Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts’ Boys Don’t Try?, Mary Myatt’s The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence, Kate Jones’ Retrieval Practice, Mark Enser’s Teach Like Nobody’s Watching and Chris Runeckles’ Making Every History Lesson Count has utterly transformed my teaching. Teach to the top and scaffolding down; high challenge, low threat; frequent retrieval practice; direct instruction; a focus on challenging texts and scholarship in the classroom; and whole-class feedback have replaced the gimmicks of the past, which were only failing the pupils in front of me.

Almost six years ago,my dad died aged just 69. I am the oldest of four and looked up to him immensely. He was the kindest man you could wish to meet. He had a big heart and would do anything for anyone, he loved to laugh and make mischief, and he could fix anything at all. He was fit, healthy and, having just retired from being a minister, seemed to have a happy retirement ahead of him. And yet, one day he visited the doctors complaining of nausea and just not being himself. The doctor took one look at him and sent him to A&E with jaundice, and he never really came home again, bar a brief weekend. Twelve weeks later, he died in a hospice from tumours in his bile duct and liver which were inoperable, too weak for any chemotherapy or other intervention. It was a huge shock for me and my family, and my next failure relates to how I dealt with that grief, especially at work. I took the course of action of burying my feelings and throwing myself into work, going back far too soon and believing that, as head of a large faculty in school, to show how I was feeling would be a sign of weakness. I became hardened to the pain and didn’t really talk about how I was feeling. In retrospect, I know those feelings had to come out at some time and they eventually did, when I lost it at school one day and could not stop sobbing.

It was my then headteacher who took me to one side that day and spoke to me at length about what I was going through. He asked me why I was pretending not to suffer, and challenged me about why I thought showing how I was feeling would make me a weaker leader. I’ll always be grateful for that challenge. Since then I’ve read a lot about authentic leadership and how being aware of your emotions and being honest about your weaknesses can be a positive thing as a leader, often strengthening people’s belief in you. Having gone through the experience of losing my dad, I hope that makes me a more empathetic and compassionate colleague and leader, but I also hope that next time I suffer in that way I’ll know showing grief or pain is not a weakness – that it is not something you can repress or bury.

The last area of failure I have been reflecting on is my failure to have confidence and belief in my own capabilities, a topic I explored in my imposter syndrome blog post. As I mention in the blog, it’s hard to feel at times that you have something important to say, and in the world of teaching, particularly on Twitter, it’s easy for your voice to get drowned out, or not to have the confidence to say anything at all.

This crippling fear has prevented me from going for promotion or new jobs at times and led to deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy. Comparison really is the thief of joy, and as I look back on my career so far, I wish I hadn’t failed at times to see my strengths or been scared off by opportunities. As I’ve got older and learnt techniques to deal with my imposter syndrome, I’ve got stronger and more confident, more able to push myself beyond my comfort zone, and the results have been far more than I could have imagined.

Starting this blog with Katie is just one example. Sharing my imposter syndrome post and having so many people express similar feelings is a success borne out of failure, much as I hope this post will be, and takes us right back to where we started: failure is inclusive. I know failure will and does still happen to me and there are many more failures I could write about. I’m a leader and teacher who makes mistakes frequently, but it’s important to acknowledge we all have those failures. I’ve learnt that failure can be turned into the greatest achievements, that mistakes can lead to the greatest growth.

I write this post in the hope that even just one person feels less alone and that what I’ve talked about resonates, that it helps us become more connected. And I hope it shows that failure can be a force for good. I’ll leave the final words to Elizabeth Day, without whose book [How to Fail, Fourth Estate] I would not have written this post: ‘What does it mean to fail? I think all it means is that we’re living life to its fullest. We’re experiencing it in several dimensions, rather than simply contenting ourselves with the flatness of a single, consistent emotion. We are living in technicolour, not black and white.’ I know I, for one, want to live in technicolour.”

Mistakes and difficulties, as Rachel’s reflections show, leave us stronger and enrich our experiences. They come in many different guises and reflect the complexity of working in a school environment. There is so much potential for error in teaching and the reality is that we will make mistakes every day. What Rachel’s blog post highlights, however, is that old-fashioned cliché that mistakes fuel our future and make us stronger. As Seneca says, “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.”

In this section of the book we have explored the various facets of a calm and resilient mindset and how developing this mindset requires discipline and practice. The key is to maintain an open mind and to experiment with the strategies. In Part III, we will move on to practical actions that teachers can take to support and build their resilience. The first is very simple: sleep more.

Serene summary

Mistakes are a part of being human. You will inevitably make mistakes in the teaching profession, but by making a plan for how to learn from them and move forward, you can use your mistakes positively.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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