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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Making Mistakes & Learning From Them - Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 03, 2015 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

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

Part One featured Roxanna Elden, Julia Thompson, Ekuwah Moses, Jenny Edwards, Kevin Parr and Leslie Blauman baring 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.

Today’s post includes responses from PJ Caposey, Jennifer Gonzalez, Arpine Ovsepyan, Marcy Webb, Marie Levey-Pabst, Vance L. Austin, and Steven Anderson. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author of two books (Teach Smart and Building a Culture of Support), and sought after speaker and consultant specializing in school culture, principal coaching, effective evaluation practices, and student-centered instruction. PJ currently serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached via twitter (@MCUSDSupe):

Before I entered the dark-side as an administrator I taught in an inner-city school in Chicago, IL. I loved my job. I loved my kids. In fact, one of the greatest professional rewards I reap is staying connected with my former students via social media and the occasional opportunity to buy one of them lunch. As a new teacher, I lacked many of the principles of best practice instructional pedagogy and I would not describe my preparation skills as excellent either. I did one thing really well; however, I cared deeply for my kids.

I had the opportunity to work with high school seniors in a school that graduated three of every four kids and where 19 of every 20 students were economically disadvantaged. Moreover, my last year there we lost an inordinate number of students to violence and other outrageous circumstances. I therefore viewed my primary job as to help my students find their way across the stage at graduation no matter what. In my head, the best gift I could give my students was an opportunity to move forward and create their own reality. In doing so, I lowered my expectations of my students and enabled them.

Simply put, the biggest mistake of my teaching career was losing sight of the purpose of my class and the skills I wanted students to leave with. I lowered my standards thinking I was doing my students a favor when all I was doing was enabling them. The lessons I learned from this experience were vast, but can be narrowed to three key pillars of which I base my educational decisions to this day:

* Great leaders and great teachers have high standards.

The ability to see students for greater than they see themselves is gift great teachers have. Act upon it and do not look back once you have set floors for their performance, not ceilings.

* Not holding someone accountable to standard only benefits you.

When lowering standards the only person who wins is the person lowering the standards. It takes courage and fortitude to hold someone to a standard that stretches them out of their comfort zone. Doing so, however, is the only way to ensure that they are growing.

* Students are remarkably resilient.

Never underestimate the resiliency and toughness of students. I have found that when I want to pull back or give in to outside circumstances I am doing so for myself. Students have the ability to push through - do not quit on them.

Response From Jennifer Gonzalez

Jennifer Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher and editor-in-chief at Cult of Pedagogy, where she shares wisdom and resources to help all teachers do amazing work. She is co-author of Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School:

My biggest teaching mistake was trying to please all of my students all the time. If I created an assignment that some kids complained about, I rarely stood firm; instead, I would travel down the slippery slope of debating the merits of the task, arguing with students about why they had to do it or what else they wanted to do instead. This happened with assignments, classroom rules, seating arrangements, project requirements. In a room of thirty different personalities, I had trouble accepting that I was never going to land on the perfect thing that would make everyone happy.

That word--happy--that was the problem.

Happy shouldn’t be the goal of school. Happy suggests a short-lived, fluffy state of mind. We serve our students far better when we focus on different emotional outcomes: Satisfied with a job well done. Proud of mastering something difficult. Appreciative, curious, reflective, capable: These are far more worthy goals than happy. But they are harder to achieve.

In my case, I went too often for happy, for the easy win, and this ultimately did not serve my students or me. For one, my desire to please diminished my authority with students; it gave them the impression that anything I said was up for debate, and this must have made them feel less secure in my classroom. Just as they do at home, students need strong adults in charge at school, bona fide grown-ups who will make the tough decisions and draw lines when they need to be drawn. I’m not talking about being inflexible or dictatorial, just firm. That wasn’t me: Instead of modeling assertiveness for my students, I mostly showed them what wishy-washy looked like.

Role modeling aside, my need to please had another, more significant consequence: It robbed my students of opportunities to challenge themselves with hard things, to develop the stamina needed for tasks that aren’t always fun, and to cope with the reality that the world was not designed purely for their entertainment. By making things easy for them, I stunted their growth.

What I learned from this mistake is that to nurture student growth, a teacher has to get comfortable with discomfort. Imagine a weightlifter who wants to be able to lift heavier weights. The only way she can get there is by putting up with the pain of adding more weight. Sticking to the lighter weights would be easier, but that won’t help her reach her goal. A good teacher knows this, knows just how much pain is enough, and can stand beside his students, helping them tolerate their discomfort, their frustration, their distractions, and come out the other side as stronger, more capable people. That’s the kind of happiness that lasts.

Response From Arpine Ovsepyan

Arpine Ovsepyan is an award-winning educator and Class of 2007 ASCD Emerging Leader. Learn more about the Emerging Leaders program and all of ASCD’s programs, products, and services at www.ascd.org:

Most of us are familiar with the old expression the only mistakes we make are the ones we don’t learn from. Nothing could be closer to the truth as I reflect on the most major mistake I made in my teaching career was not using technology earlier in my career to assist me as I helped support student success. As I clean out old files, I find reminisce of this mistake in the form of overhead transparencies, old paper grade books, and handwritten notes to parents. Ironically, I have always been a strong advocate of technology when I teach my students lessons, however, my transition to incorporating technology in my day-to-day teaching practice took a long time to master. As both new and veteran teachers get ready to kick-off a fresh school year, here are five educational technology tools I can’t live without.

First and foremost, I strongly recommend using an electronic gradebook program. Whether it’s provided to you by the school district, or you need to use free resources like Engrade, always keep a running record of students’ progress that is available 24/7 for parents to access.

Second, I am a creative person at heart. However, often time, schools lack the financial resources to support that creativity. Sound familiar? When I started teaching, we didn’t even have enough textbooks for each student! One solution I recommend is Donor’s Choose. I was blown away by the enormous amount of generous donor’s in my community and nationwide that supported my class projects for iPads and books. All you have to do is set-up an account, shop through vendors for your project, and follow through to make sure your project is fully funded. Major companies even offer matching funds so the skies the limit.

Third, transparency is essential for educators. One way to establish is an class website where assignments are listed, due dates are recorded, and contact information is readily available. We are preparing students for the needs for the 21st century after all so the sooner they get used to using e-mail as a professional communication tool the better. Equally important are sites like Remind that allow teachers to send text messages to students reminding them about class assignments.

Fourth, is an amazing vocabulary and test generation website called Quizlet. In our era of Common Core Standards that require students to become college and career ready, this website offers a powerhouse of resources. Teachers can choose from pre-made vocabulary lists, or they can choose to create their own. Then, students have access to print them or study with them on any type of mobile device. Another plus, is that the site have games and audio tools to help review as well as quizzes that are generated on this site in seconds

Last by not least, are subject specific sites. For me as an English teacher, Easybib offers a free MLA-citation generator for students. For Math and Science teachers, Khan Academy offers amazing video tutorials. For Social Science teachers, PBS online has a multitude of resources. For Art teachers, we have the Art Project powered by Google. And of course, education organizations like ASCD offer outstanding networking tools and research-based practices to support educators from around the world.

I urge all educators, regardless of their years of experience in the education field, to embrace technology to assist them as they work with students and parents and learn from the biggest mistake I made in my teaching career.

Response From Marcy Webb

Marcy Webb is a Spanish teacher, workshop presenter, and Critical Friends Group® coach and facilitator:

The biggest mistake I made as a teacher was my failure to recognize and understand the importance of positive and nurturing interpersonal relationships with students.

During my thirteen years as a student, from kindergarten to grade twelve, I didn’t recall many “warm fuzzies” being imparted to me by my teachers. Therefore, when I became a teacher myself, I did not see them as a necessary component of my role. As a result, I approached teaching in a very clinical manner: I had a job, which was to instruct, and, my students had a job, which was to learn. Additionally, I thought that the most important things my students needed from me were my knowledge, skill, and expertise. Nothing more. And yet, for many years, I could not understand why my relationships with my students were so tension-filled and strained - for me and for them. I did not attribute it to my style as a teacher.

The summer of 2006 was a pivotal period in my teaching career. In July of that year, I attended a five-day workshop in Brattleboro, VT entitled, “Teaching Foreign Languages to Students With Learning Disabilities.” Perhaps this was an unlikely venue to learn empathy and compassion. On the other hand, I learned new strategies for teaching and supporting students and their language learning. In addition to attending classes, I engaged in long conversations with my new colleagues. Many of those conversations centered on the student-teacher relationship. I realized, for the first time, that developing and maintaining a positive connection between my students and me was the single most important thing I could achieve as a teacher, especially with students who are struggling learners.

What have I learned along my journey? Two things: To walk in my students’ shoes, and, to become vulnerable. These two things allowed me to reveal more of the “real me” with my students. Although I do maintain a clear boundary between my students and me as adult and youth, respectively, my connection to them and with them is more authentic, more humanistic, and more relaxed. Which is very different from the dynamic I both experienced and manifested in my former persona.

There are days when I fail to achieve the degree of empathy and compassion I desire in my teaching and in my relationships with students. However, like all things, the process, and me, are works-in-progress, and both, have improved considerably.

Response From Marie Levey-Pabst

Marie Levey-Pabsthas been teaching high school English for ten years and currently teached in Boston Public Schools. She is a Nationally Board Certified teacher:

My biggest mistake as a teacher was thinking that I could get away with teaching my students how to do something that I hadn’t actually done myself. In my early years I focused extensively on planning fun lessons in hopes of capture students’ attention. Whether it was using “Pimp my ride” as a metaphor for revision or showing funny commercials to teach logos, pathos and ethos, I was entirely focused on reeling my students in. What I didn’t understand was that capturing their attention wasn’t enough. What really held their attention was the learning and sense of accomplishment that came with that. In order understand that I had to step into their shoes.

I finally realized that, if I wanted to teach students how to do something like write a coherent argument or discover the overarching theme in a novel, I had to go through the process myself. This is not to say that I hadn’t written coherent arguments or found literary themes before I became an English teacher. However I usually followed my teacher’s suggestions, and never thought metacognitively about my own process and what resources and skills I was using to accomplish these critical thinking tasks.

Through trial and error, and lots of help from Penny Kittle’s “Write Beside Them,” I learned that I needed to do every assignment I gave students, just like they would, in order to teach them. Today I took the same test I will give my students next week, and I also revised the op-ed I wrote while they started their own op-ed writing assignment. Through my own practice and metacognitive process I have developed clarity about the skills my students need to accomplish the challenging tasks I put before them. I have also developed much needed empathy for the emotional hurdles students face as they are learning something for the first time. This has all been far more valuable than finding the most hilarious commercial to use for our “persuasive techniques” unit.

Response From Vance L. Austin

Vance L. Austin, PhD, has spent over 30 in the field of special education as a teacher, counselor, professor, and administrator. He is currently Associate Professor of Education/Special Education at the Manhattanville College School of Education. He is the co-author of Difficult Students & Disruptive Behavior in the Classroom: Teacher Responses That Work (forthcoming in Fall 2016 from W. W. Norton):

As a teacher’s assistant, I was determined to make my mark as a special educator, having just read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969). I threw myself enthusiastically into the tasks assigned by my teacher, Mr. G. (my hero and role-model, who was just a few years older than me).

Mr. G determined that the best way to prepare me for my future role as a special education teacher was to assign me to one of the most challenging students in his class as a one-to-one aide: the indefatigable David D. I relished the opportunity, determined to alter the trajectory of the troubled teen’s future. David, however, was out to thwart my best efforts and establish the fact that he was incapable of redemption. As Thanksgiving approached and I considered David’s dismal prospects for a “normal” Thanksgiving celebration, I had an epiphany: David could spend Thanksgiving at my home! My wife slowly warmed to the idea and the school administrators reluctantly agreed, after obtaining permission from David’s parents.

Feeling like a “man on a mission,” I picked up David from his residence cottage Thanksgiving Day morning, encouraged that he had showered and was wearing his cleanest shirt and jeans. After introductions and polite small talk, my family and he sat around in the living room, watching an NFL game, and when the turkey was finally ready we sat down to enjoy the feast.

As I dropped David off at his cottage later that evening, he thanked me profusely for a great time and “good food” before disappearing into the dormitory. I felt gratified, having accomplished what I considered to be a breakthrough. I was soaring!

The very next school day after the break, I was tasked with retrieving David from his cottage, but was confident, given our recent bonding experience, that I could cajole him into coming to class. I found him lounging on his bed, reading a comic book. “Hi David, time for school,” I said. “Well, I’m not going to school today!” replied David adamantly, not even deigning to look up from his comic book. “But David...” I stammered. David cut me off mid-sentence with his retort, “I said thank you for the dinner!” My heart sank as I learned a hard lesson. Behavior change takes time and trust...more than a couple of months and a turkey dinner.

Over the course of that school year, I slowly learned what was effective in my work with David. Much of what I tried, I learned by watching my mentor, Mr. G. I learned to exercise all the patience I could muster. For example, I understood that David couldn’t sit for long periods of time, or he became anxious and fidgety. Likewise, he was unable to complete tasks of long duration that required sustained focus. To help David, I reorganized longer tasks into smaller, more manageable ones, provided fewer questions for him to answer to reduce frustration, presented some variety in assignments and offered him choices, and allowed him to move around in the class, as long as he wasn’t disruptive. Finally, and most importantly, I believe, I established an effective rapport with David by welcoming him as a valued member of our classroom community and showing him that I genuinely cared about his learning and well-being.

Response From Steven Anderson

Steven Anderson is a former teacher and Director of Instructional Technology, a member of the ASCD Faculty, and a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader. Anderson is author of The Tech-Savvy Administrator: How do I use technology to be a better school leader? (ASCD, 2014) and co-author of The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning (Corwin, 2014).

I was a terrible classroom teacher. Well, maybe not terrible, but upon many years of reflection and a few years out of the classroom, I wish I had known then what I know now about engagement, formative assessment, and digital technologies. So if I could do it all over I could be better at reflection. Constantly examining my practice, the learning my students were doing (or not doing) and how I could improve would be the main thing I would want to change.

Responses From Readers


After one of my students graduated I found out he was sleeping in a car! My interactions with him would have been very different. He was a wonderful kid!

Thanks to PJ, Jennifer, Arpine, Marcy, Marie, Vance, and Steven, and to readers, for their contributions!

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