Oops. Yay! Mistakes.

Picture of whiteboard

My profession is teaching.* My goal is for learning to happen. The two aren’t directly connected. You can’t make people learn things. They do it themselves. And in order to learn, they need to make mistakes, even when they themselves are learning to be teachers.

Yesterday, two of my teaching practicum students co-taught a math observation lesson. They had submitted their lesson plan to me well ahead of time for feedback (as required), and when I read it I told them (twice) that the children would find the second half of the lesson difficult.

My students made minor changes. Little formulaic tweaks. Twice. They clearly knew better than I did. Silly practicum coach.

Excellent. Fine. Sure. Uh-huh.

I cheerfully let them go ahead. Not because I wanted them to fail. Because I wanted them to learn.

The first half of the lesson was fine. The second half was one of those slow-rolling mudslides where you only see small shudders to begin with but you end up with trees and rocks in your attic and your house is a quarter mile away, upside down, and crushed. In the last ten minutes, some children were yelling, “I don’t get it!” or “Noooo!” while another one was saying “I don’t care” and putting his head down.** Others were industriously working away at the worksheet, many getting it entirely wrong. The noise level got louder. In response, my practicum students got louder and louder too, and trying to “teach” the skill to the whole class over and over again. Finally they collected the worksheets to end the lesson, handed the class back to their mentor teacher, and escaped.

The only part of that lesson I really didn’t like, honestly, was when one of my students forgot to “carry” one digit in the multiplication problem she was demonstrating on the board. I almost stood up and interrupted at that point, because you can’t give them wrong information.

The rest of the lesson was perfect. For my students, not for the children they were teaching.

I said to their classroom mentor teacher later on (she had been watching), “I hope you don’t have to do too much reteaching.” She grinned and said, “It’s all right. That’s how they learn. I remember what it was like.”

My practicum students were shattered afterwards, thank heavens, but I was encouraging. I pointed out the good parts, and then I told them–when they finally asked!–what went wrong (which was what I told them would go wrong).

The best response to people who will not take your good advice is to let them go ahead anyway. Most often they will make mistakes, and they learn.***

Now here’s the hard part:  You too. Go out and make your own mistakes. Keep learning. It won’t kill you.  I promise.

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*Standard disclaimer. Please do not complain to me about Common Core, about the way math is taught these days, about kids these days, about the quality of teachers, or about grammar and spelling. The situation is a lot more complicated than most people think. If you complain, I will ignore you, because I have learned not to reason with people about their favorite complaint truisms when all they want to do is complain. If you really want me to explain, watch out, because I have a master’s and a Ph.D. in education and I will bore you to death. I speak from experience and the memory of many panicked, glassy eyes.
**I quietly went and helped him get back on track, don’t worry–a student who says “I don’t care,” is usually telling you, “This is awful and I don’t know what to do.
***Or else they actually do know better than you and you will learn, or else they will blame something else and you won’t be wasting your time trying to convince them against their will.
†Also, one thing the mentor teacher and I both know is that one lesson gone wrong will not damage the children. They’re really good at learning, which is lucky. Things go sideways all the time.††  It’s the whole year that matters, the community you have built, the trust you have earned, and what you do afterwards.  The mentor teacher is used to righting the house after the mudslide and putting everything back where it belongs. She likes teaching, just as I do, and she wants to help people become teachers. Besides, my practicum students are a big help in the classroom and will be there all year to work with small groups.
††BE FLEXIBLE.. That’s the one thing I directly teach that I know my practicum students have learned, because I say it over and over again, they get daily reminders in the classroom when things go south, and from time to time they tell me they have DISCOVERED I AM RIGHT OMG: 

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