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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Twenty of My Biggest Teaching Blunders

In honor of Edutopia's 20th anniversary, we're producing a series of Top 20 lists, from the practical to the sublime.


Twenty of My Biggest Teaching Blunders

We teachers make 0.7 instructional decisions per minute, according to research summaries by Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson. We make them in contexts that shift from hour to hour in overstuffed portables with finicky projectors, after grading, without enough time to collaborate, without enough information and with too much. We look confident when we're not, look enthusiastic during second period when demoralized by first. We speed up for the majority when a few need us to slow down. We make decisions about what's important on festive days and during dark ones, such as 9/11, when raw grief and disorientation filled America's classrooms like hurricanes of ash.

In honor of Edutopia's 20th Birthday, here are 20 embarrassing teaching mistakes I'd rather not repeat.

1. Grading Binges I used to read, respond to, and grade two boxes of journals in a weekend: the equivalent of two Moby Dick novels. By noon on Saturday, my overwhelmed brain would turn student reflections into word soup. Yet, I would press on, incoherently.

2. Not Preparing for the Non-Response I often fail to anticipate that many students will not share my enthusiasm for, say, a lesson on sentence variety (a new book on the subject, Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is an excellent new resource on the subject). Consequently, I have no fall back plan when my prompts elicit only silence.

3. Rushing Students need abundant time to process. I've tried to race students through activities that help them learn specialized concepts and vocabulary, but there are no shortcuts.

4. Pre-Lesson Agonizing Wasting time in a fog of reflective doubt (Uhmmmm. Hmmmm. Maybe that way...? No, stupid. That's no good), I've over-planned thousands of classes. Think Bataan death march. Instead, Robert Boice's method of composing in a low-key state of happiness, setting the timer to take breaks, speeds up and improves lesson planning.

5. Forgetting Play I take my content area and self too seriously. Unless we're studying Emmanuel Ringelblum's Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, or 9/11, fun is critical to active engagement.

6. Remembering that the Tools Are for the Kids I use multiple online tools to enhance my presentations without allowing enough time for students to explore and create with technology.

7. What Now? I remember some dark days in a tenth grade classroom, when freewheeling laughter, mimicry, banging, snickers, and swearing lay siege to my calm, where I ceded expectations and boundaries. Can I send the entire class to in-school suspension? I taught like a foreign correspondent, responding late or not at all, re-evaluating what to do and then recognizing that the moment to do something had passed. I'd never been taught Malcom Gladwell's concept of "thin slicing," the need to make instant decisions -- ideally good ones -- when there is not enough information.

8. Culture Blindness Teaching Madeleine L'Engle's remarkable A Wrinkle in Time to struggling ninth grade Ojibwa students was the mistake of a white upper-middle class instructor, mining his cultural preferences. That newbie instructor should have selected a Sherman Alexie book that drew upon Alexie's Native American experiences.

9. Wishful Teaching Thousands of my classes have ended in abstractions, where I wasn't sure if students learned a thing. In good classes, students perform, create, or solve.

10. Rejecting Sensible Footwear For fifteen years, vanity informed my "professional" shoe choices. Cobra-skin botas, Campers, sandals, and driving moccasins augmented my classroom cool. Today, I unsuccessfully hide my limp with sauntering nonchalance and ice my Achilles tendons every night.

11. Hiding Ignorance One of my colleagues will know what to do. I should instantly walk down the hall and ask.

12. Neglecting Personal Reading Years have gone by without me reading good new fiction. What kind of model is that? Neglecting to read fiction is equivalent to being unable.

13. Discussing Insecurities In the late '90s, I discussed my curriculum doubts and insecurities in order to be more transparent. Bad move. Confidence resonates.

14. Political Blindness My ballooning sanctimoniousness was always punctured. Playing chicken with administrators advanced neither cause nor career.

15. Putting How before What and Why I used to think of class time as empty space to fill with presentations and activities that would help students meet objectives. I had it reversed. Setting goals should occur before inventing what will happen.

16. Distractions Watching Netflix or doing Ductivities while grading always wrecks my concentration and triples work time.

17. Omitting Novelty So many of my lessons, wrongly, did not include video (see Schoolhouse Rock), or guests, or dramatization, or a poem, or a simulation, etc.

18. Motoring Forward During discussions, I often forget to ask a follow up question like "What do you mean by that?" when I assume a student is simply wrong.

19. Not Having Models I should watch more colleagues teach in order to learn new strategies. Effective teachers love learning and wear supportive footwear.

20. Who Are You? Getting to know students is too often secondary to constructing curriculum castles that only I like to inhabit. Having kids complete inventories or present what Chico State Professor Peter Kittle calls multimedia compositions is a way to learn about student affinities and create tailored lessons. I should also facilitate more focused conferences to see how students are processing information.

I never seem to get a lesson exactly right. But according to David Cohen's Accomplished California Teachers, "That's what makes teaching so compelling and frustrating -- there is no correct way." Thank god.

In the spirit of sharing and learning from each other, I'd like to hear from other readers. What are some of your biggest teaching mistakes?

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

Great list. Every new teacher should read it so they don't feel like it is just them. I would like to add:
Don't try this at home: Things that work well on your computer at home may not go well in the classroom. There are lots of little nuances with security and networks that can set your class. I have gone in with a great lesson, that just won't work!

Kevin's picture
Kevin
9th Grade Algebra I teacher from Metuchen, New Jersey

I've made the mistake of not doing an activity myself before having the students do it. I once discovered, too late, that the dirt-cheap balloons I bought from a drug store for my 6th grade science class to use to construct model lungs would not inflate no matter how hard they blew into them. Better to use the high-quality balloons available at good party stores!

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
Blogger

You're right, Sandra. Those little glitches on the computer that you can fix in seconds at home ALWAYS take so long in front of sixty eyes.

Bob Alexander's picture
Bob Alexander
Consultant for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network

Great list, Todd, and an honest rendering from a reflective practitioner. I appreciate you sharing these experiences. My list of instructional blunders is a mile long and a mile deep, but the one that comes to mind at this moment is more philosophical than pedagogical--believing that, through sheer force of will, I could make a student love a text as much as I did. Sometimes you have to be the hammer, sometimes you have to be the nail. Might doesn't always make right.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)
Blogger

Thanks, Bob. Response to literature is so personal. I remember the shock I felt the moment I realized I was twice as old as my students. Of course students are going to prefer different texts than I like.

With kids so fixated on their information devices, getting those pings of dopamine, I wonder if we need to re-conceive how literature is introduced.

Trace-it's picture
Trace-it
High School English Teacher

Fantastic list! I was reading and nodding in agreement through out your post. This year my school switched from block schedule to 7 period schedule and I found myself going from having 55 students to having 147 students. Last year I read everything that my kids turned in for a grade. This year I quickly found myself floundering while working 12 hours every weekend to grade papers. Thus I have resolved myself to grade some assignments for completion and others for content. I understand that grading for completion cuts back on time spent grading, however I feel that not reading and responding to more assignments leaves me not knowing my students as well as I did last year. Any thoughts?

Lisa Moore's picture
Lisa Moore
Middle School Language Arts Teacher

I absolutely loved reading this list! It helped me to realize the extent to which most teachers are alike. I am currently in my sixth year of teaching, yet I am still struggling with Blunder #10: Rejecting Sensible Footwear. As I type this comment, I have my feet up recovering from a day in some very uncomfortable shoes. My search is on for comfortable footwear that will work well with my attire.

Lauren Rekonen's picture
Lauren Rekonen
High School social studies teacher from St. Paul, MN

I really like this list! To #9: Wishful Teaching, I would add that frequent easy, and usually informal assessments would also help to eliminate "hoping" that the students learned and turn it into "knowing" what they learned and what they didn't learn yet.

I would also add a #21: Getting Angry with a Student (and Showing It). I find that every time that I show my anger with a student, I regret it. Even if the student's behavior is really rediculous, getting angry or raising my voice never helps the situation.

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