Are you terrified of making a mistake in front of your students? Or colleagues? I was. And I still am. But I’ve noticed that if I own my mistakes, then I can turn them into teachable moments. And, as teachers, we all know how powerful these teachable moments can be.
The first time I noticed I’d made a mistake is quite memorable for me. Not because there were huge repercussions, but because of how I handled it. I was teaching a math lesson about perimeter. In front of my students, I wrote the heading “Perimetre” across the whiteboard. As I wrote it, I thought to myself “that doesn’t quite look right”, but I squished that thought and focused on the lesson. As a new teacher, I really struggled to ‘go with the moment’, and pausing to check my spelling wasn’t in my lesson plan.
The Moment of Panic
Anyway, I’m there teaching my students all about perimeter (with my spelling mistake plastered over the whiteboard for all to see!), and in walks a colleague. She looks at the whiteboard, then at me. With that look, I know. I had spelled the word wrong, and I needed to fix it. She smiles, and says “well, that’s an interesting way to spell perimeter’… Oh boy! I looked at the board again, knowing that the word was misspelled. And now my students knew too. I’d always struggled with the re/er word endings, so I was pretty certain that this was my mistake. But, with 25 eager eyes on me, I needed to be certain.
Saved by a Bulletin Board Display
Now, I’m not usually very quick to think on my feet. And this day was no exception. I felt like I stood there frozen for a good ten minutes, deer in the headlights style. I looked around the classroom, hoping to see something that would save me. My eyes fell upon the bulletin board at the back of the classroom. “Classroom Helpers” screamed the banner. Ha, I sure did need a helper now!
A Simple Solution
I called upon the student who was our designated “Word Helper” for the week. I asked him if the word I had written was correct. That was met with a blank stare. Of course the students didn’t know, they’d never heard of this word before today! Then I prompted our helper with “how can we check?”. Dictionary. Great, let’s get a dictionary. And try not to panic that students are getting restless. Or that this is not in my lesson plan. In hindsight, the word was actually in my lesson plan, but I didn’t think of that at the time!
Turn Mistakes into Teachable Moments
My helper came back with a dictionary, open to the ‘p’ pages. He stars spelling the word: “P-E-R-I-M-E-T-E-R”. My students start to notice my mistake. I called upon another student to come up to the whiteboard and edit my word. The word was corrected, so now do I go back to the planned lesson, or do I spend a minute explaining this? I decided to explain. We looked at the spelling of the word ‘metre’ (which is correct in Australia), and we wondered why the ‘re’ was different for both words. I set a homework challenge for students to research these words and find out why the words have a different spelling at the end. Then we returned to our lesson on perimeter.
Sure, spelling a word incorrectly in front of 25 students really isn’t a big deal. I’m sure I’ve done it countless times since! I’m sharing this post with you because of what happened next: I had a couple of eager students wanting to share their homework task with the class the following day. But, more important than the task, they also wanted to share about a time they’d made a mistake. So, we had a class discussion about mistakes we’ve made, and how we overcame them. We talked about big mistakes and little mistakes, and how a mistake for one person may not be a mistake for another. We decided that mistakes are an opportunity to learn, and how making mistakes can help us remember the lesson. Since then, I take every opportunity to turn my mistakes into teachable moments.
And by the way, each of those students still knew how to spell ‘perimeter’ at the end of the school year! Have you ever turned mistakes into teachable moments? Drop a comment below to let me know!