Inspired by this post by LennoxTutoring

The issue of whether or not it is acceptable to make mistakes in front of students, and how we expect or allow them to respond, has always been an awkward one for me. I have had no small number of peers and supervisors insist that I should never admit to any mistake I make in front of my students. Supposedly it’s unprofessional and will seriously damage their faith in me as an instructor. I have found exactly the opposite to be true – their respect for me and faith in me only grows when I am willing to be seen as human and fallible.

None of us is perfect. A perfection culture that suggests it is even possible sets the stage for children to experience errors as some sign that they must not be smart enough, good enough, or hard enough workers. It also contributes to the formation of a lousy work ethic in adulthood. How much more efficient would most businesses be if people stopped burying their mistakes and just dealt with them directly and promptly?

Associating mistakes with feelings of embarassment and inadequacy discourages children from asking questions in class. Thank your students for asking questions. Make sure they know that other people undoubtedly need to know the answer too. You may think that’s so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But the self-conscious teenager sitting in your classroom does NOT always know that. They may be sitting there genuinely concerned that they are the only person in the class who didn’t ‘get it’ the first time around.

Appropriately questioning authority is a GOOD skill for children to learn. My standard has always been that any student who is being civil and reasonable can point out a potential mistake I may have made, or disagree with a position I hold. This has been depicted to me by other teachers as allowing or condoning ‘dangerous backtalk’. To my kids who ‘backtalked’ to me about something by politely presenting a rational case for their point of view – I love you, I am proud of you and if the only thing you learned from me was to approach disagreements this way, then I did the most important part of my job correctly.

Being honest about where my limits are builds a deeper trust with my students. They know I am willing to double-check my answers, to admit to mistakes, to acknowledge when I am out of my depth and can only offer an educated guess or no answer at all. The result is that they have a tremendous amount of faith that what I do tell them can be trusted.

Laughing is good. When I make a mistake, my students and I laugh together at it.

– Seeing me occasionally make certain types of mistakes reinforces the message to students to really watch out for those slips. For example, I sometimes do lose track of a negative sign. The fact that I am still capable of making such an error reminds them to pay extra attention to those darned negative signs!

– Seeing how and when I figure out that I have made a mistake, and how I determine whether I only need to back up a few steps, or need to restart the entire problem, teaches vital lessons to my students. They learn how to tell early on when something has gone wrong, and how they can effectively decide to fix it.

Finally, please understand that the most frequent source of my minor slips is the fact that unlike most teachers, I do the work cold every time and walk the kids through the steps. I don’t have the answer key in front of me and I don’t pre-write how to do it so I have something to slyly eyeball as I proceed. I talk with them as I work it through and help them really understand the entire process. That isn’t just for them; that is also for ME. It keeps my mind razor-sharp because I ‘exercise’ those math muscles intensely every single day. I can’t convince them to love math if I am not willing to show them that I love it, enough to tumble into it madly every day with enough enthusiasm that I just might make a mistake.

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