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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 realized I’d made a mistake in front of my classroom, I ignored it. During a math lesson about perimeter, I accidentally wrote “perimetre” on the whiteboard. As I wrote it, my stomach twisted a little, but I ignored the warning and kept going with the lesson.
Then a colleague walked in, glanced at the board, and looked back at me with the tiniest of smirks. And that twist in my stomach came back because suddenly, I knew. 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 actually was in my lesson plan, but I didn’t think of that at the time!
The Teachable Moment
My helper came back with a dictionary, open to the ‘p’ pages. He starts 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 what 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. We discussed our ideas for a few minutes, then I set a homework challenge for students to research these words and find out why the words have a different spelling at the end.
Reflecting on the Teachable Moment
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! But I’m sharing this story 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. This prompted 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!
The Teachable Moment for Me
Sure, I’ve focused a lot here about the benefits of this mistake for my students, but what did I get out of this experience? Honestly, I learned a lot from this.
- I learned that I didn’t need to be perfect. In fact, this lesson made me realize just how important it was for adults to be modelling mistakes to children.
- I learned the importance of owning my mistakes.
- I learned to take risks while teaching, to write a word intentionally wrong and then act puzzled when my students correct me.
- And, of course, I learned how to spell perimeter, which I can proudly admit, I still spell correctly. Most of the time.
How You Can Create Teachable Moments in Your Classroom
So, here’s your homework…err, schoolwork?!
- Next time you’re standing in front of your students, I want you to make a deliberate mistake. It doesn’t need to be a huge mistake, a simple spelling mistake will work.
- Make sure your students realize your mistake.
- Talk through how to fix the mistake. This will teach your students about problem-solving, exploring other possibilities.
- Ask your students to help you. Yep, you’re modelling how to ask for help!
- Encourage your students to teach you rather than fix it for you. I know, I did this one a little different, but it’s important that students learn to identify when someone needs help, and what the best way to help might be.
- Reflect on the mistake. Demonstrate to your students that you learned from this mistake, how you felt when you made the mistake, and then when it was fixed.
- Make connections. Invite students to share their own stories about mistakes they’ve made.
- Celebrate the mistakes. This is a really important step that is often overlooked! People are often embarrassed about their mistakes and try to hide them. If we model this behavior to our students, then how will they learn to accept and own their mistakes?
If you want to read more about how important it is for your students to see you making mistakes, have a look at Alina Tugend’s article about The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom.
Have you ever turned a simple mistake into a teachable moment? Drop a comment below to let me know!