New Teachers

Twenty of My Biggest Teaching Blunders

An invitation to learn from others' mistakes
September 19, 2011

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 BingesI 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-ResponseI 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. RushingStudents 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 AgonizingWasting 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 PlayI 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 KidsI 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 BlindnessTeaching 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 TeachingThousands 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 FootwearFor 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 IgnoranceOne of my colleagues will know what to do. I should instantly walk down the hall and ask.

12. Neglecting Personal ReadingYears 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 InsecuritiesIn the late '90s, I discussed my curriculum doubts and insecurities in order to be more transparent. Bad move. Confidence resonates.

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

15. Putting How before What and WhyI 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. DistractionsWatching Netflix or doing Ductivities while grading always wrecks my concentration and triples work time.

17. Omitting NoveltySo 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 ForwardDuring 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 ModelsI 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?