Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Responses: Our Teaching Mistakes & What We Learn From Them

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 01, 2015 19 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

What has been your biggest teaching mistake and what did you learn from it?

Many of us try to learn from our mistakes, and encourage our students to do the same! In fact, I have an entire collection of The Best Posts, Articles & Videos About Learning From Mistakes & Failures.

However, it’s one thing to talk about making mistakes with our students and with our close colleagues. It’s an entirely different “kettle of fish” to confess them to the Education Week readership.

Today, Roxanna Elden, Julia Thompson, Ekuwah Moses, Jenny Edwards, Kevin Parr and Leslie Blauman bare their souls to the world as they write about their biggest teaching mistakes. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Roxanna, Julia and Ekuwah on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Of course, I can’t ask others to publicly share their mistakes without writing about my own...

The biggest mistake (so far, that is!) that I’ve made in my teaching career occurred last year. During that time, I continued operating the same way I’d been acting for a long time without recognizing that some important aspects of my situation were different. What I should have done was to recognize this new “picture” and change my strategies, accordingly.

As many readers know, the United States has received many refugees from Central American countries who are fleeing gang violence, along with poverty and other tragic circumstances. Many moved to California, where I teach.

As a very experienced educator of English Language Learners, I was confident in my abilities to teach these new students. After all, I have successfully reached a wide-range of ELLs over the years - including large numbers of pre-literate Hmong refugees; previously well-schooled students from China, Russia and the Middle East; and young people with interrupted education from multiple countries.

Given those previously successful experiences, I planned, along with a bilingual aide, to follow the same instructional strategies I had followed before - I would primarily work with the larger number of Intermediate ELLs in my combined class, and she would focus on the smaller numbers of Beginners (almost all of whom were Central American refugees) using my “tried-and-true” lesson plans.

As the year went on, and more Central American refugees joined our class, we stuck to this plan. My aide was having a number of challenges, but I figured they were only temporary - after all, it had always worked before....

Late in the year, after my extraordinarily competent aide was completely frustrated, it finally dawned on me that trauma and life events, and a lack of support, had shaped my new students in far different ways than I had expected. My inability to see and acknowledge what was new and different led me to cling to the comfort of the old, resulting in a disservice to all my students and to my colleague.

In some ways, my experience might be similar to those at a Chicago school recently profiled here in Education Week. They were very experienced at working with newcomers, but then received refugees (in their case Somali Bantu) who might have come to the school with somewhat similarly traumatic backgrounds. The school seems to have had a very difficult time accommodating their needs.

I am working hard at “re-calibrating” my teaching this year and our school, under the leadership of principal Jim Peterson, has made substantial commitments of additional support. I’m sure I will make many mistakes. However, there is one I doubt I will be repeating - I don’t think I will assume that just because something has worked in the past means that it will work equally well in the future. All our students are unique individuals with their own stories of success, pain, love and loss. We need to be looking for, and listening to, those unique voices with fresh eyes and unblocked ears. And we need to look beyond our comfort in doing things the same way when we respond to them.

Now, to today’s guests:

Response From Roxanna Elden

Roxanna Elden is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. This month she is announcing the “Disillusionment Power Pack,” a free, one-month series of emails for new teachers in which she shares journal pages, stories, and insights she would have shared with the first-year-teacher version of herself. Emails begin with signup and arrive every few days for one month:

A big mistake that stands out from my first year of teaching involved a student in my fourth grade, ELL class. This student had just moved to the US from Mexico and did not speak one word of English. He spent most of his time drawing and trying not to fall asleep. I was overwhelmed by the demands of the other 33 students in the class and often left him to his own devices, which was a mistake in itself.

Meanwhile, I was attending training classes that constantly reminded us how important it was to set high academic expectations for students. Every time I thought of how miserably I was failing to set high expectations for this student it made my stomach hurt.

Then one day, something amazing happened: we wrote an essay as a class, and this student copied the whole thing off the board, which meant he had written his first full page of English, ever! I should have made a huge deal about this. Instead, I thought about the lessons I was learning in training and saw this as a chance to show this student I was setting high expectations for him. So instead of providing encouragement and celebration, I looked over this nine-year-old boy’s work and said, “Okay, great, but next time remember that you’re supposed to indent at the beginning of each paragraph.”

While I was talking, he started looking down at his desk and wouldn’t look back up at me, and at some point it occurred to me that I was saying the wrong thing. I tried to backpedal and tell him I was proud of him, but it was already too late. This student didn’t look at me for the rest of the day, and for the next few months, he went right back to drawing and trying not to fall asleep.

At the time, I never discussed this mistake in public. I was so ashamed of having shut down a student just when he was beginning to show interest and make progress. I was afraid that people would think I was a horrible teacher. Most of all, I was afraid they would be right. After many subsequent years of teaching, however, I now realize that new teachers make this type of mistake all the time, and it has an understandable root cause: Over-applying or misapplying generally good advice.

My training was correct. It is a good idea to set high expectations for students. Unfortunately, my first year I didn’t know how that piece of good advice applied to the situation in front of me. As a result, I pulled the wrong trick from my meager “bag of tricks,” used the right tool at the wrong time, and shut down a student for months. This is an important lesson for mentors and supervisors, and for new teachers themselves as they learn to forgive their own mistakes. As beginners, we are faced with a constant stream of judgment calls we’ve never had to make before. Often, the mistakes we make are not from ignoring what we’ve learned, but from earnestly applying it before we really know how it works.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

One of the surest things about a career in education is that we have plenty of opportunities to learn from our mistakes. While there is no way to track data on the number of mistakes that the average teacher makes in a day, it must be high. I know that I can count on having to redo or undo something every single school day without fail not matter how carefully I plan or prepare.

As an experienced teacher, I don’t make the same mistakes that I did as a novice. I’ve made the typical ones that we all make--not calling home early enough, incorrectly estimating the time that it would take to cover material, not having a good backup plan for a failing lesson, or assuming that students had adequate background knowledge--just to name a few. I’ve also made some unique ones. Telling a student, “Yes, I’d love to see your new tattoo” without first asking where it was located was probably the most embarrassing. Who knew that a student would have no problem dropping his pants to show his teacher the tiger tattooed on his behind?

A mistake that taught me an important lesson rolled out slowly for several years before I even realized that I was wrong, wrong, wrong. As an inexperienced teacher, I tried to cover my insecurities with a tough, no-nonsense persona. I was fair, but too strict. I was not warm or friendly or able to let my students know how much I really cared for them. I was one of those “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving” teachers, only I never smiled all year.

Because this was not a reflection of my true nature or the way I felt about my students, gradually I was able to let go of it as my confidence as an educator grew. Today, I openly show my students that I think they are amazing and intelligent and capable. I tell them often that I enjoy being with them. I let them know that I find them fascinating and remarkable people. I tell entire classes this. I tell individuals this. I model it every day when I express my appreciation for their efforts and for their hard work. I am happy to see them, and I make this obvious. Learning this lesson has made all the difference in my career.

Response From Ekuwah Moses

Ekuwah Moses is currently a Family and Community Engagement Facilitator in Las Vegas, Nevada and works for the Clark County School District. Previously, she served as an Instructional Coach, Literacy Specialist, Learning Strategist, and elementary classroom teacher. Moses is a published ILA author and has presented internationally. She is a new blogger and enjoys sharing experiences, authentic classroom photos and innovations in professional development with other educators. Follow her on Twitter @ekuwah or Facebook at “Cues from Ekuwah Moses":

One and Done

Make a Ten (p.88). Check. Doubles Plus One (p.90). Check. This page-by-page and checklist approach was my daily routine to instructional planning. I used the scope, sequence, and pacing of the textbook without deviation. I closely followed the provided textbooks without, embarrassingly, any substitution, supplementation, or modification based on my students’ skills or interests. I literally taught the lesson in the textbook, copied and assigned every available worksheet, and kept moving the next day. I graded the worksheets and did not use the data to drive my instruction. I trusted that the publisher’s embedded spiral reviews were sufficient for students to obtain mastery. I never internalized the complex meaning-making journey I, as the classroom teacher, needed to orchestrate for my students. I did not understand the depth and breadth of what I was assigned to teach. I glazed over fundamental skills without the expectation of mastery. I was a “One and Done” teacher. Basically, I was a paid robot or overpaid substitute teacher.

My most egregious error was with checking off mathematical content. I understood that second graders were required to add and subtract fluently. The addition strategy of “Make a Ten,” a lesson in the textbook, is not something that can be taught and mastered in one lesson. But, that is in fact what I did in a second grade classroom. I taught that “page” one day and never mentioned it within the context of problem solving or planned meaningful stations because I did not realize the purpose of the addition strategy. It was not something I recall learning or repeatedly using myself. I had rote memorized all of my facts. I did not understand how strategy-based fact instruction is naturally applicable within the context of problem solving. I did not engage in powerful math discussions and cooperative problem-solving. I trusted the daily timed test and random flash cards to yield the computational fluency my students needed. If I had internalized the rationale of the content, my prompting, cueing, and questioning within my mathematics instruction would have been more impactful.

Now, I realize how conscious we need to be as educators and understand the magnitude of what the standards and curriculum resources may gently glide over. We are faced with a gigantic continuum. It is my responsibility to take the student from their current ability level and provide a classroom experience that will lead them to the end of the continuum or beyond. Classroom interaction and experiences need to be substantive and purposefully connected. This must include a dynamic and fluid formative assessment system along the way to adequately align instruction to the needs of the students. I am the variable in the classroom and I must be intentional about seamlessly tucking and weaving the content throughout the year. It’s no longer a one and done scenario.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of the ASCD books Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? and Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students:

Use Encouragement Rather Than Praise

I wish that I had known to avoid praising students and instead, to tell them specific things they did well. When I went into teaching, I thought that I should say, “Good job!” “You are really doing well!” “That is great!” Then, I read the research about praise versus encouragement. I learned to avoid praising students by giving them general statements about how well they were doing. Instead, students needed to know specific information about what they were doing so that they could repeat it.

In addition, my positive words needed to be aligned with their self-concept. If I said that they were a great student and they did not believe they were a great student, my statement would cause them to experience cognitive dissonance. Then, they would need to act out in order to prove that they were right and I was wrong.

I remember a little girl in second grade with whom I was having difficulty working. I did everything I could to convince her that she was a good student. I thought that perhaps if I told her that she was a good student enough times, she would come to believe it. According to Leon Festinger, my statements caused her to have cognitive dissonance. One day when she was staying after school to complete a paper, I told her again that she was a great student. At that point, she took her arm and wiped her book, paper, and pencil off of the desk and onto the floor. At that point, I said, “Hmm . . . this is definitely not working!” When I shared the experience with my principal, he wisely told me about cognitive dissonance. From then on, I started giving specific feedback to her that she could not contest. I gave her feedback that fit with her self-concept. “You wrote three lines on the paper today. Bet you feel good about that.” “You sat at your design for 10 minutes and read two pages. Bet you feel good about that.” She had to agree with the concrete feedback.

For more information, please see:

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington, and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr:

As a beginning teacher I wanted to be student centered. I wanted to empower students to take charge of the classroom culture, their behavior and learning. My biggest mistake, however, was believing I was doing those things when in actuality I had grossly underestimated my students. Without realizing it, I had fallen into a command and control style of teaching which valued compliance above all else and, in doing so, I failed to realize the depth of my students’ ideas and capabilities. Although I continue to discover ways in which I still underestimate my students, I have learned a few things about empowering kids along the way.

1. Be intentional . . . continuously: Student empowerment is not an end state. As teachers we need to consistently reflect on our current practices and reach for new ways and new degrees of empowering students. Here is a simple example: Like many teachers I aimed to empower students by having classroom jobs. Early on I would ask for student input in creating a list of classroom jobs and then outline the requirements of the job, create a way to rotate students through the jobs and then make sure they were doing their job. As I became more aware of what kids could really do themselves I not only invited students to create the necessary jobs but also to outline job responsibilities and a protocol for addressing non-compliance. Beginning to empower students was a great first step for me and only proved how much I had underestimated my students . . . and this is only the beginning.

2. Aim high and scaffold: Students will be better off if we as teachers aim to empower students to a higher degree than they are currently comfortable with and then plan to scaffold how to meet those demands. I learned that students need not have all the skills required before shifting responsibilities their way. Skills like decision-making, reminding a peer of a forgotten responsibility and how to hold a team meeting are all skills that can and should be taught. I realized I should embrace topics like these instead of taking the easy route of doing more for my students.

Mis-pacing a lesson, creating an activity that misses the mark or misinterpreting a classroom disturbance are all mistakes that can be recognized and remedied quickly. My mistake in underestimating my students ideas and capabilities took a little longer to realize and make up for. No matter how big or small, consistent reflection helped me recognize my mistake in underestimating my students and I was able to improved my practice by continually seeking to empower my students.

Response From Leslie Blauman

Leslie Blauman is an elementary teacher in Cherry Creek School District where her classroom is a visitation classroom for the PEBC for teachers who want to learn more about reading, writing, and critical thinking using the workshop model. She works nationally and internationally as a consultant when she’s not in the classroom. Her latest book is The Common Core Companion Grades 3-5 Booster Lessons, Elevating Instruction Day by Day (Corwin, 2015) which provides the lessons that match her book The Common Core Companion: The Standards Decoded, What They Say, What They Mean, How to Teach Them Grades 3-5 (Corwin, 2014):

After thirty-two years of teaching, I admit I’ve made plenty of mistakes! Each one offers a unique opportunity to reflect and grow as both a teacher and learner. With that in mind, I find that making assumptions is often the root cause. When a lesson or instruction “goes off the rails” it’s generally due to not being explicit or not providing enough scaffolding for students to be successful. Stepping back and reflecting - and reflection is such a key component, allows me to “tweak” instruction, returning the next day, or the next time I teach a unit, and doing it better. Mistakes are the best “teachable moments”.

Along with teacher reflection, comes student reflection - building in time, and lots of it - for students to reflect. This can be as simple as exit slips, jots, or turn and talks. It also encompasses reflecting on their learning and progress. For instance, each time I finish a unit of study, I give students time to reflect on their process. I wrote in Booster Lessons, “If we want students to continue to feel that their hard work is for them, not just to ‘do school’, it’s vital that we invite them to reflect on the work they do.” For example, in writing, a few questions I include are: What did you try as a writer? What did you learn about yourself? Is there anything you’d like to tell me that I could do to improve my teaching? That last question is so important - as asking my students for feedback and listening to them ramps up my instruction. When in doubt, ask the kids! I spend more time listening than talking. Periodically, I ask students to reflect on their progress - how they view themselves as learners. We discuss that learning is a progression. For example, they may be advanced on the soccer team for their age group, but may need some support and more coaching when it comes to writing. Their self-assessment and goals allow me to individualize and differentiate. In addition, this helps me plan and teach without making those assumptions that throw my instruction off track.

Finally, asking questions is imperative. I want to know “Why?” Why am I teaching this? Is it good for my students? Is it what they need right now? How will I know they understand? I write this, because thirty plus years ago when I first started teaching, we had scripted teacher guides. And we followed these step by excruciating step. And of course my students weren’t engaged - and neither was I! I started asking myself “Why?” and “How could I do it better?” “What’s the through line of core practices that do work?” I’d say it’s authenticity. We need to constantly ask those questions of ourselves - and of others. Bottom line- what is best for kids? This last line from my introduction to Booster Lessons is my mantra: “But most importantly, keep this one thought at the forefront - are you teaching your students to read, write, and think - and love doing it?” I ask myself that every day! That is no mistake!

Thanks to Roxanna, Julia, Ekuwah, Jenny, Kevin and Leslie for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first four years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

Classroom Management

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

The Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Brain-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Teaching Reading & Writing

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Author Interviews

Teaching Math & Science

Professional Development

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Look for Part Two in a few days.....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.