Over the years, I’ve published no fewer than 40 posts in which educators have shared mistakes they’ve made or witnessed in education.
However, making mistakes is one activity that that we will never stop doing. Fortunately, we’re also given the opportunity to continue learning from them.
Teachers in this new series will share the biggest mistakes they have made in their career and the lessons they’ve learned from them.
Leading With Deficits
K. Renae Pullen is the elementary science teaching and learning specialist for the Caddo Parish public schools in Shreveport, La. She was a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee for the consensus report “Science and Engineering in Preschool through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators”:
Professional reflection is a humbling process. It forces you to be vulnerable and engage in difficult conversations with yourself. That inner conflict, while uncomfortable, can lead to some remarkable shifts in practice. I wish I could say that throughout my career, I made only the best decisions, and all my good intentions were followed with tremendously successful outcomes. Unfortunately, I cannot say that. I made mistakes during my professional journey.
Early in my career, my colleagues and leaders praised me because I built respectful relationships with my students and families, cultivated a positive classroom culture, and established effective classroom procedures and routines. I collaborated with my colleagues and sought professional learning opportunities to enhance my teaching practices. I wanted to give all of my students every opportunity to learn. I used data and anecdotal evidence to make instructional decisions. Despite my good intentions, I unknowingly developed a teaching habit that would be detrimental to my practice and negatively affect my students.
In my first few years of teaching, some federal policy changes shifted how many in the profession viewed teaching, learning, and school performance. My students’ success was my moral imperative. To help them achieve success, I became convinced it was vital to find the gaps in their learning and focus on building knowledge and proficiency. I reasoned that if I focused on my students’ deficits and provided individual support, I could “fill in the gaps” and help them improve their academic performance. After some time and careful reflection, I realized that thinking was not rooted in the belief my students had the ability to succeed.
It was never my intention to ignore the brilliance of my students. My search for learning gaps made it difficult to set ambitious learning goals and have high expectations because I hyperfocused on what my students could not do. I had given myself few opportunities to honor and leverage my students’ expertise and the rich knowledge they learned from their families and communities.
In an attempt to hold myself accountable and improve learning outcomes for my students, I developed a deficit mindset about them. I would get overwhelmed by what I believed they did not know and could not do. It was not a productive or respectful way to think of my students. Furthermore, it did not work.
My students were capable learners who used a variety of resources as they learned. Centering student learning gaps ignored the amazing things my students brought to the classroom. I decided to shift my mindset to focus on what my students could achieve rather than centering what I perceived were their weaknesses. Leveraging my students’ strengths and experiences instead of looking for potholes in their background knowledge shifted how I planned instruction.
To honor the different ways students expressed their understanding, I gave them more voice and choice in the classroom. My students responded better to academic feedback when I used their strengths to improve areas of need. Seeing that my students had more confidence to engage in challenging work was exciting, and I felt more hopeful about my teaching practices and my students’ abilities.
This shift in mindset caused me to make other pedagogical changes in my practice like engaging students in more collaborative conversations, allowing students more autonomy in the classroom, building better partnerships with families, and maximizing the power of formative assessments. As I dedicated more time for students to make their learning visible, I discovered my students were engaging in more sophisticated, complex thinking than I realized. I missed many opportunities to make meaningful learning connections because I was starting in an instructional hole.
Today, I have the language to describe what I did many years ago. I adopted an asset-based mindset that changed my practices and improved my relationships with students and families. Using data to focus on gaps in student learning was a mistake I made in my career. That deficit mindset inhibited my ability to welcome the knowledge and lived experiences my students brought to the classroom. Identifying and valuing my students’ strengths and unique talents relieved the professional anxiety that comes with deficit thinking. Moreover, it empowered my students to explore their interests and think deeply about their learning.
‘Drowned in the intoxicating fumes of technology’
The moment I moved from being a 2nd grade teacher to a 5th grade teacher, I fell in love with the power of technology in the classroom. After completing a professional development opportunity with Microsoft Education, I jumped in with both feet to utilize the new Microsoft OneNote Class Notebook and Microsoft Classroom (now called Teams). My students were excited to use the latest technology to capture their learning.
However, my students drowned in the intoxicating fumes of technology, and many did not thoroughly learn the content. I FAILED my students. As time passed, I learned different teaching models with a technology emphasis. I was able to revamp my craft. I realized that content and pedagogy are the front-runners in education and that technology must be the enhancer. To transform my classroom and prepare students for graduation, I needed to take these tools and implement them in a new way.
During the height of COVID, my classroom became a true blended learning model focused on personalized, competency-based learning and Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate. My students followed the station-rotation model of individual rotation. I implemented the individual rotation model by providing students with specific stations they could complete to achieve the learning targets. This blended model focused on students showing competency for any given standard. I allowed them choice, time, and pace, with goals aligned to the Portrait of a Graduate. My students were getting autonomy in how they learned the content.
For example, I created a choice board that focused on reading, listening, and writing. Students had Monday-Friday to complete at least two activities in each focus area. Within this choice board, they could read their book; read curated online resources such as Newsela, Wonderopolis, Sora, Epic, etc.; or read on our online reading website, Raz-Kids. For the first time, they could demonstrate mastery of a standard or objective where they got a choice. I learned early on with technology, I needed to become the enhancer of the learning that my students were driving.
Bursting my bubbles
They say that teachers have a lot of patience, which is somewhat valid. In an elementary classroom, teachers practice procedures from the first to the last day of school. Often, teachers need to repeat, practice, and review everything. That includes procedures, content, behavior, rules, and expectations.
There are fantastic days in a teacher’s classroom where you feel like you’re changing your students’ lives and others when you wonder if you even made a slight difference. Sometimes when teaching a difficult concept or unit, you must repeat yourself more than usual. Or you feel your students are not paying attention or resisting the learning. Some students interrupt you, others are off task, and a handful are perplexed. Then you get that overwhelmed feeling, and your bubble finally bursts, and you react very poorly. You see it on your students’ faces, and now, you want to cry.
This experience taught me that we cannot control everything and we are only human. As the primary adult in the room, it is important to keep calm and ensure that procedures and directions are clear to avoid confusion. Mentally preparing students for potential distractions and interruptions is also essential. As a role model, taking a few deep breaths and remaining composed is crucial, as reacting poorly only sets a bad example for students. Ultimately, it is crucial to be a positive role model for students and lead by example.
Too Many ‘Innovations’
Neven Holland is a Ph.D. student at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, a contributing writer for Edutopia, and has proudly served as a tenured elementary teacher at Treadwell Elementary in the Memphis-Shelby County schools. He is also a 2022 Tennessee state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching:
My biggest mistake as a teacher was trying to do everything innovatively during my first year of teaching. I tried to perfect many strategies I read about in books and online instead of sharpening a few. Many first-year teachers may come in with fear and anticipation during those first two weeks of school. We come in thinking, “I’m going to do this method from coursework on the first day of school,” “I can’t wait to design this multitiered, culturally relevant, bilingual classroom library,” or “I have a new plan for an interactive whiteboard protocol.”
None of these statements is improper, but sometimes we do not consider, as I did years ago, what is easily accessible, relevant for students, and manageable and workable given our lack of experience, current timeline, and resources.
After I graduated from the Memphis Teacher Residency, I had a laundry list of ideas for everything that I wanted to do, such as multiple rotating stations, different attention-getters to practice with the students, innovative ideas on collecting papers, unique ways to hook students at the beginning of a lesson, and even different ways students could line up at the door to go to lunch.
I had many plans and visions but needed a clear path to implement them with fidelity and care without being overwhelmed. I soon realized that it was challenging to execute 20 routines effectively and that I would need plenty of time for practice, reiteration, and reflection with my students.
First-year teachers should focus on a few tasks or routines they want to hone and refine as they begin their journey in this glorious profession. Less is more in situations where I still needed to remember that I was becoming a teacher with all its intricacies and difficulties.
Becoming a teacher is not an expedited process but often a slow, methodical one filled with wisdom from trial and error. I did not have to be a model teacher with all the groundbreaking ideas on Day 1. Knowing your students and your content well is the first step. Having excessive strategies and ideas in my toolkit was less valuable than having a couple of methods I could perfect over time to elevate student outcomes.
During direct instruction, research has shown that when students are introduced to unnecessary actions while already working on a complex task, this can hamper learning. Thus, it was easier in Year 2 to gradually tie in one or two new evidence-based strategies as I became more comfortable and organized with a student-centered goal behind what I performed in the classroom. It is not about trying new strategies for the sake of trying something new because unnecessary cognitive load, whether a class routine or instructional routine, can backfire on students’ mastery. Too many interacting elements can muddle all the effectiveness, and this is a reminder for more than just new and veteran teachers like me. This is also a reminder for school district leaders, PLC coaches, and instructional coaches eager to add things to teachers’ instructional plates rather than subtracting them, where continuous improvement can take place and flourish with quality over quantity.
‘I Had So Much Left to Learn’
For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught 7-12 grade students social studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. In 2013, Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit working to create and support student-centered learning environments that are inquiry-driven, project-based, and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the executive director and lead teacher for Inquiry Schools:
In 2008, I inherited an advisory that was entering their junior year of high school. Advisory, in this school, was designed to have a four-year relationship with a group of students as you helped them find their way through high school and then move into their next phase of either college or career. Picking this advisory up in the middle was tough. Half of the advisees loved their old adviser and were not thrilled to get a new one; the other half didn’t care for the old adviser and were at least open to someone new but had some trust issues with any adviser. The extra added bonus is that I taught all of them in my U.S. history class.
My first year at the school was tough and awesome—but still tough. Establishing trust and relationships needed to happen fast because we were entering the season of college admissions. Most of the students and I were able to get on a page by the end of that first year. I was struggling to connect at all with one of them.
He was a student that chose not to speak to adults much, at all. To me, not at all. Many times when I needed something to happen with that student, I would involve his basketball coach or one of his teammates that was also an advisee. Going into the fourth quarter of his senior year, he was not looking good for an on-time graduation. I sat him down at my desk and for the 77th time requested his cellphone number because things were so precarious that I needed to be able to find him quickly to potentially get ahead of failing a class. Reluctantly, he gave up the digits. Within 30 minutes, I had communicated with (as opposed to talked at) this student more than I had in the previous 18 months. Regular communication continued as we headed into May/June.
When it came down to the wire and he needed to clean up a last project to pass his science class, one of my other advisees came back from a senior picnic to sit with him and make sure he had the support he needed. (I still have a picture of the two of them working away late into the day on a June afternoon.) When it came time to present his capstone, which required him to speak for about 10 minutes to an audience, he did it. It was the most I had heard of his actual voice in nearly two years. I cried (not in front of him but just after as I walked into the staff meeting). He barely made it to graduation on time, and we were all so worried about him making it … but he slipped into line *right* before our advisory walked out to our seats. When his name was called, the whole class was on their feet. The sense of relief I felt at the end of that experience was immense.
The mistake I made was trying to force this student to communicate in the way that was easiest and best for me. It took me *forever* to put it together on how to communicate with him. Forever. Once we found the path, though, we were on it. I made an assumption early on that he didn’t want to communicate with me, but really, it was that he didn’t want to talk to me. There was a difference in there that I failed to recognize for far too long. When it clicked, I was gobsmacked at how simple and elusive it was in the end.
He and I traded messages a few times while he was in college, and I was able to help him think through some ideas for papers and plan out a presentation. It was lovely. We decided that what worked for him and me is that as adversarial and tough as things became, either one of us quit on the other. He taught me so much in that two years of teaching and advising about really, truly seeing each student as they are and working from there. He taught me how to rally a community to support each other. He taught me humility. He taught me that I had so much left to learn about being good at my job.
Thanks to Renae, Kayla, Neven, and Diana for contributing their thoughts!
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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.