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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are ‘Kids These Days’ Really Allowed to Make Mistakes?

By Jon Harper — February 16, 2020 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Jon Harper, an assistant principal at the New Directions Learning Academy in Cambridge, Maryland.

I don’t blame the architect because I can’t imagine it was part of their training. Nor was it the fault of the construction crew. They were simply following the plans given. The only folks left who could be responsible are the educators and those involved in the day-to-day operation of the school building.

That’s us.

By now, you may be wondering what I am talking about and that makes sense as I have yet to express my concern. What I am referring to is the fact that school has become a place where there is no room for mistakes. I have been in school for almost every one of my 49 years and I am not so sure that mistakes have ever been accepted--or even forgiven for that matter.

Is there any wonder the number of students suffering from anxiety has increased? Is there any wonder that teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers? And is there any wonder why getting parents to visit schools or just sit down and have a conference is becoming increasingly more difficult?

There shouldn’t be. Why would someone want to spend any more time than they had to in a place where they must constantly worry about making mistakes?

I don’t blame them...

But the stakes are too high for us to allow this continue. No longer can we allow the place where we spend our days be somewhere that causes pain and worry for so many. I believe there is something we can do about this.

What We Can Do for Students
Yes, kids these days have access to resources that most of us never dreamed of. It’s easy to look back and think that we had it more difficult. But hindsight is a dangerous thing. Students today are experiencing more trauma, stress and depression than ever before. The suicide rate for teens and young adults continues to rise to higher than ever. Lisa Damour, author of Under Pressure and Untangled, believes that the grim “new statistics cannot be separated from rising rates of depression and anxiety in young Americans.

So, what do we do?

I think we start by asking students what they need. I get it, we are the experts and we have our degrees but isn’t it possible that we don’t know. Rarely do we ask students what it is about school they don’t like. The usual pushback is expected. Kids think school sucks. I realize reading that last sentence stung a little bit. But it’s true. Maybe we felt the same way when we were in school. But I think it’s getting worse and I think a lot of this has to do with this feeling, this perception, that they can’t make mistakes.

We can change that by displaying vulnerability. Share your mistakes, blunders and weaknesses with your students. In doing so, others might be inspired to share as well. More importantly, your students will begin to feel safer and they will feel that they spend their days in an environment in which it’s okay to make mistakes

When AJ Juliani, Director of Learning and Innovation at Centennial School District, was in the k-12 classroom, he had an Epic Fail Board on which students could record some of their biggest fails and risks. He mentioned how at first, students were hesitant to put anything up on the board. But after time, AJ began to notice that “changed the classroom culture from one that shied away trial and error, to one that supported and even praised risk-taking.”

What We Can Do for Teachers
With state testing season looming, teachers are beginning to worry about how their students will perform. Nevermind the fact that they have been performing all year, every day, in one form or another. Teachers, unfortunately, are often evaluated and judged on snapshots. Whether it be a yearly test or a classroom evaluation, teachers know that eyes are always on them.

Knowing that they are constantly being evaluated, whether it be by students, administrators or the public, takes its toll. The thing is, I have talked to hundreds of teachers during my 20 plus years in education and it’s not the act of teaching has them up at night. Teachers are worried about making mistakes. Maybe their lesson won’t go as expected. Maybe one of their students will misbehave during an observation. Maybe their class won’t perform as well as they did last year.

Teachers need to be reassured that that they are not alone. Making mistakes comes with the territory. When you spend your days working with children, or adults for that matter, you are going to mess up. A lot. It’s is our jobs as colleagues, administrators and parents to let teachers know that it is okay.

Simply knowing that they have permission to mess up can be reassurance enough to allow a teacher to relax. They shouldn’t have to spend their days and nights worried about whether or not they are going to make a mistake. Of course, they will. We all do. School should be a place where the people that spend the most time with students feel comfortable and are not constantly feeling as if they have look over their shoulder. Better to go for successes than to try to avoid mistakes.

If you need a way to further inspire educators to share mistakes, have them listen to a few episodes of My Bad. My Bad is a podcast that I hosted for over three years. Each week guests would come on and share one big mistake with my audience. Yes, I think listeners learned from others’ mistakes. But more than anything, listeners realized that they weren’t alone when it came to making mistakes.

What We Can Do for Parents/Guardians (Show our fallibility as parents and/or educators)
A school can be an intimidating building to enter. Maybe even more so than the MVA. We recognize how fast education is changing and we are on the front lines. Imagine how fast and foreign school seems to those who don’t work in one.

It seems like every other month students are learning a new way to multiply or divide. And don’t even get me started on technology. It’s wonderful and it’s cutting edge. But it’s changing so darn fast. We work in schools and are kept up to date with training and in-services as it is part of our job.

Parents don’t have this luxury. This is not to say that some parents are not aware of some or most of the changes taking place in education today. But most aren’t. Why would they and how could they be? Yes, we often have Parent Night to help teach parents about the new goings-on in our school buildings. But how inviting are they? Really?

Let me give you a comparison. How current are you on the latest technology taking place when it comes to fixing your automobile? If you’re anything like me, you hand your keys over to the dealership or mechanic and you hope for the best. I don’t like spending much time in mechanics’ garages because it reminds me how clueless I am when it comes to my car.

We must work harder to let parents know that it is okay to not know, and it is okay to make mistakes when it comes to their child’s education. It’s time for us to share our experiences. How did we feel when we first heard about the new curriculum or the new multiplication algorithm or the new state assessment?

We were angry, scared and afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

Let parents know that it’s okay not to know. The sooner we view parents as partners the sooner they will be ours. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. And the more comfortable a parent feels the more often they are likely to enter the school. We must let them know that it is safe to make mistakes.

Schools have become places that make people nervous. Our children are sometimes reluctant to go, teachers get anxious on Sundays and parents dread calls from school. There are myriad ways to make school more appealing and inviting but I think we should start with the most obvious. Schools must be places where mistakes are accepted and not punished. We must make them a place that those inside it feel welcome. And we must start by making schools a place where people can err.

Jon Harper is the author of My Bad: 24 Educators Who Messed Up, Fessed Up and Grew, the host of My Bad and the cohost of Teachers’ Aid. He can be found at jonharper.blog

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.


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My 2018 Failing Report

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.