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.
I got asked this question recently. And I didn’t have a clear, simple answer because I don't feel that there was one trigger. I think there were a number of small - and some pretty big - events that have led me to this point where I have set up my own business.
Also, what was the moment I started my business? There isn’t a clear moment where I didn't have it and the next moment I did. It's been evolving for quite some time. It's still evolving and it's still growing.
So whilst I couldn't give a straight simple answer, the question really made me think about what has brought me to this point.
One trigger was the moment I made the decision to leave teaching. So many events had brought me to that point – I won’t list all of those triggers here now (that could be a blog post in itself). But when I made that decision, it really came down to the fact that I wanted choice. I wanted to make a change for myself, and I wanted to do that by making a choice.
The importance of choice is reflected in the day to day of teaching - I didn't always have a choice about what I did in my role. I was told I had to do things in a certain way and I didn't always agree with that way.
It’s also reflected on a higher level. I wanted to have choice about how I lived my life, how I spent my time and ultimately how I could create an impact in the world. I didn’t feel that I had that choice when I felt stuck, out of control and disempowered in my teaching role.
So choosing to leave teaching was definitely a trigger for me setting up my own business, but I didn't know when I left teaching that’s what I was going to do. In fact, I didn't have a plan at all!
I just knew that I was making a choice to change and that was important to me.
I have also reflected a lot on how choice was a big part of my teaching ethos. I wanted to empower children to have a choice. Whether I was telling the children explicitly or modelling through my actions, I wanted them to believe that they could do whatever they put their minds to.
In the words of Henry Ford: 'Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right.'
I felt for a long time in teaching that I was stuck. That I couldn't really do what I wanted to do and I definitely couldn't leave. What would I do? Teaching is what I do. It’s who I am. I couldn’t see another way.
I wanted to be teaching children that anything is possible but I wasn't truly embodying that. I wasn't the role model I wanted to be for them. I wasn't the role model I wanted to be for the adults in my life either. Importantly, I wasn't the role model I wanted to be for myself.
I made the choice to prove to myself that what I believed was true. You can do what you do put your mind to. So I can do what I put my mind to.
That realisation and the subsequent choice I made to change it were definitely triggers.
I made the decision to leave teaching, because I didn't feel empowered and I felt I didn't have choices. I felt stuck. I felt hopeless at points. I felt disempowered. But I sincerely believe that had I had the help that I provide now when I was teaching, things would be different for me. And not just in the lead up to making the decision to leave, but before I knew I was feeling disempowered, and before I felt stuck. If I had had support I genuinely think things would be different. And I can imagine being in the classroom feeling truly empowered and how much of a better teacher I would be because of it!
So after I made that decision to move away from teaching, the more I reflected on what was important to me, I've found myself coming back to education to now empower teachers. I want to empower teachers, because I know what it's like to be disempowered. And I want to empower teachers because that will empower children. And that's what was most important to me about teaching. Empowerment is not only what education is about for me. It’s life. If I can help others see they have a choice, that’s powerful.
If I can do what I put my mind to, so can you.
And by me doing that, I will help others do it.
The work I now do empowers teachers, it empowers children and it empowers me.
I know it’s not the most succinct answer to the original question, but by summing up the triggers that brought me to start my own business, I’ve told you how I ended up doing what I do now and why it's so important to me.
I'd love to know if my triggers resonate with you - even if your story is very different to mine.