First Person

Being Wrong Has Made Me a Better Teacher

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When I was a brand new teacher, my advisor from Bank Street College would observe me. Afterward, when I was expecting criticism, she would always point out a few positive moments that I usually hadn’t noticed because I was so fixated on what needed work. Her positive observations helped me see a sliver of success, so I could build in that direction. I easily identified what had not gone well, and we also problem-solved those issues together, but her encouraging observations helped keep me from beating myself up when I wasn’t meeting my own expectations.

Eventually, I developed my own version of her positive observer voice, which has been invaluable in a profession that will pull you in a million directions if you let it.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed a shift in how I hear my internal voice. Some of my most interesting moments as a teacher have arisen when I’ve found myself being wrong in the classroom. These days, my inclination is not to beat myself up for being wrong, but to feel curious or even amused, because I hadn’t expected to be wrong in this way.

I’ve started to believe that collecting, observing, and learning from my own flawed judgments is the way forward for me right now. My new-teacher self needed to build confidence in my capacity in order to grow; my experienced-teacher self needs to shed ego and embrace uncertainty in order to keep learning.

Here are just two of the “wrong” thinking moments that have amused and taught me recently.

Flawed Thought #1: I’ve Done This Well Before, So I Don’t Need to Think It Through

One day, after a number of inspired days with students, I had an extra period with one of my classes in the schedule. I thought, “No problem; I don’t need to plan this. I have so many tools in my toolkit. My classes are going well. I’ll think of something.” To be fair, that very thinking has worked before.

I decided I’d have the students dramatize scenes from the novel they were reading. This is one of my favorite activities, and one that has gone well in the past. I began by asking students to name significant scenes from the book, while I listed them on the board.

When they had enough scenes, I hesitated, looking at the list and then at the students. I had an inkling of the organizational trap we were about to fall into, but moved forward anyway. I told my 8th grade students to form their own small groups of two, three, or four, and choose a scene from the list to dramatize. They were to assign each student a character from the scene and practice reading the dialogue straight from the book. Later, groups would share their scenes.

There were so many misses in this move, though, that I am laughing to myself as I write this. The class flopped big time in organizing themselves. The biggest flop was that students chose their groups first and then had trouble finding a scene with the right number of characters. The result was that several groups chose the same scene, not because it was so important, but because it was one of very few scenes with exactly three characters. Other groups spun their wheels for half of the period trying to decide on a scene. One group of five students quickly found a scene with exactly five characters, which happened to be super short. They declared themselves “done” preparing after a few minutes, and then made a lot of noise playing around.

All of this annoyed me at first. I was expecting a fun and enriching period, and I was disappointed with the outcome. I could have jumped into a “this class just can’t …” line of blaming. I could have delivered a tirade to the students, which would have been pretty out of touch with the reality in the room. Instead, I reckoned with myself. Who was in charge here? I was. Who created this mess? I did. Why? Because I thought I didn’t need to plan it out. There are a number of small ways I have structured this more successfully for students in the past. Just a little bit of planning would have prevented a lot of trouble.

Once I sorted this out in my mind, I felt a little amused. For some reason, it felt good to tell myself, “You don’t know as much as you think you do.” Recognizing my flaw without making a harsh judgment about my students or myself freed me up to manage the situation from there. I told students to pause, and asked them how they thought the activity was going. They identified all of the problems I was seeing, and though we couldn’t get back the time we’d lost due to the disorganization, students wanted to move forward in the activity, and were basically ready to do so.

The message for me, loud and clear, was that no matter how much experience I have, teaching is still challenging, and every group of students, every period, deserves thoughtful planning.

Flawed Thought #2: I’m Worried Students Won’t Be Able to Do X, So I Assume They Can’t

It was the end of our first novel study this year—the book was American Street by Ibi Zoboi. We had also read a shorter text, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. I asked my students to come up with a list of creative-writing assignments they could try based on either text. These included things like rewriting a scene from another character’s perspective, writing the first chapter of a sequel to this book, or adding a scene in which one of the characters goes to therapy.

Students were coming up with ideas for both books, and then one student said, “Could we, like, merge the two worlds?” meaning the worlds created in each of the two texts. My mind was slightly blown by this idea. I never would have thought of this myself, but I was also skeptical.

Inside, here’s what I was thinking: This is a cool idea, but it won’t work. Lots of students will want to do it, because it sounds exciting, but it’s going to be too difficult, and they won’t be able to create anything of quality out of it. Or they will decide it’s too hard and switch assignments, losing time in the process.

I wanted to say, “That’s a great idea, but no, not for this assignment.”

Luckily, my core values as an educator kicked in and dissuaded me from vetoing the idea. In a short moment, I decided that in this situation it was worthwhile to show students I was open to their ideas, rather than shut down an ambitious idea without having tried it. The worst-case scenarios I worried about still involved learning, even if it they didn’t end up yielding great end products. What I said to the class was, “That sounds really cool, but really difficult. You can try it if you want.”

Guess what? The “merge-worlds” option was not as popular an assignment as I predicted it would be. More importantly, the handful of students who chose it produced incredible work. Each time I saw this outcome, I smiled to myself, shaking my head a little. I had been dead wrong. I was SO glad that I had not acted on my flawed judgment. The incident came to me as a strong message not to blindly trust my own judgments, especially about what students can and can’t do.

The learning moments keep coming. Like trying to reach the horizon line, in teaching you never get there, because the more you move toward a goal, new planes keep opening up. In this new plane, being wrong is my best teacher.

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