When a pupil in your class makes a mistake, what do you do?
I know as a teacher I would have said something along the lines of, ‘That's great! The fact you’ve made a mistake shows your taking risks. What can you learn from it?’
What I definitely would not have said is, ‘You're stupid for making a mistake. You should have known better. Everybody else has done this without making any mistakes. You've made a mistake so you're a failure.’
I would never have said that to a child - and hopefully you agree - but if you read the statements back, I wonder if you’ve said any of those things to yourself when you've made mistakes before?
I've definitely called myself stupid for making mistakes. I've definitely felt I should've been better. I've definitely judged myself against everybody else who isn't making mistakes. I've definitely taken one mistake and multiplied it out to prove to myself I must be a failure.
I would never say that to a child – or anyone else for that matter.
In fact, as a teacher, I would actively encourage mistakes.
Some examples that spring to mind…
I’d punch the air if my year four class used words such as ‘colossal’, ‘monumental’ or ‘herculean’ spelt incorrectly.
Of course, they could spell and use the word ‘big’ without making a mistake.
But were they challenging themselves?
Were they being creative?
Were they trying something new and learning from it?
Or was using the word ‘big’ a way of picking the easiest thing that sprang to mind? Were they scared that they would make a mistake if they try to pick a more challenging word to spell? Did they doubt their understanding, and therefore shy away from potential failure?
Sometimes pupils would ask me if they could have a rubber to erase all their mistakes and workings so they could just put the right answer.
And I’d say, ‘But what about all the hard work you did to get to the right answer?’
We’d have interesting discussions about whether mathematicians are people who get things right all the time, or if they are people who plays with numbers and problems. People who don’t have all the answers. In fact, they actively look for answers to problems that they don't have.
Often pupils would ask me, ‘What will happen if…?’
And I’d say, ‘I don't know. How are you going to find out?’
I'd encourage them to try something. And it wouldn't always work the way that they wanted it to. But whatever happened was an opportunity to learn.
So, when I think then to how I was as a teacher, I question why I didn’t afford myself the same reactions.
Why I said to myself: ‘You've made a mistake you must be stupid.’ ‘You've made a mistake people won't think you're good enough.’ ‘You've made a mistake, you're not a good teacher.’
In the classroom, I'd show that mistakes lead to learning. But when it came to paperwork, meetings, performance management, and anything to do with my teaching that wasn’t directly in front of the children, I didn't always do the same.
One of the first steps that teachers could do to help themselves is be kind and think about how they would respond to a child in the same situation.
Because I promise you it will make you a better teacher.
Whether or not it changes your approach in the classroom, which may already be fantastic, it will change the way that you talk to yourself and the way that you feel about yourself.
And if you feel empowered, your pupils will feel empowered.
So when you make your next mistake, will it be an opportunity to learn? Or a reason to berate yourself?
I'd love to know how this resonates with you and what other examples you can think of that highlight this issue of the gap between what we say to children, and what we say to ourselves.