Whoops! Now What?

mistake (məˈstāk) n. 1. an action, statement, or opinion that is incorrect, potentially causing unintended and possibly undesirable consequences 2. an inevitable and potentially valuable part of the teaching experience

Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Some occur in private without others ever knowing while other blunders may be fully public for all the world to see. At times, mistakes may amount to minor slip-ups with minimal consequences, yet others yield disastrous results with far-reaching, lasting repercussions. The reality is that, try as we might, we will err sooner or later. When it comes to teachers making mistakes in their classrooms, the challenge is to consider how we might pick up the pieces (figuratively or literally) and move on in a way that is best for us and the students.

Of all the potential sources of mistakes in my classroom, my gradebook has been one of the most consistent culprits. My school uses a web-based gradebook, which allows parents to review their child’s grades. I meticulously review my students’ grades with each new entry to ensure that everything is accurately maintained and updated regularly. Despite this attention to detail, I still discover miscalculations and errors. On a few occasions, I have even had a concerned parent reach out to ask about a suspicious grade—such as a student with a 1200% in math class. It is amazing what a misplaced zero can do for a child’s report card! Fixing this kind of error is usually straightforward and can even be a source of encouragement by knowing that parents are carefully monitoring their child’s academic progress.

I also remember a time when I taught a whole classroom of 2nd Graders how to write a lower-case cursive ‘j’ incorrectly. I realized the error that evening and fortunately had the opportunity to reteach the skill correctly the next day. However, as mentioned above, not all mistakes are as easily corrected. Others require much more grace to overcome and can bring a teacher far beyond the borders of their ‘comfort zone’.

A number of years ago, I had an experience at school where an error on my part resulted in a situation that was much less easily resolved than simply deleting a few mistyped digits. On that particular afternoon, my students were having a class in my room with another teacher while I worked on some other school-related tasks at my desk in the back of the room. There were a number of factors that coalesced that day into a perfect storm which crescendoed with me losing my temper. First of all, my students’ challenging behavior throughout the day leading up to that point had ‘pushed my buttons’, and I was feeling my patience had been pushed to its limits. Furthermore, I was in a period of my life as a young dad when I was not getting the sleep I needed to function well. As I worked at my desk, my students persisted in treating the other teacher with blatant disrespect, and I reacted in a manner that I thought was warranted at the time – I yelled. In fact, one might say I mustered my inner-drill sergeant to make sure (in no uncertain decibels) that each student in the room understood their behavior was unacceptable and that they had better get it under control, stat. Surely verbal intimidation would scare my wayward pupils into cheerful obedience!

However, the awkward silence that followed my sudden outburst was the first inclination that something was not quite right. It was not until the other teacher approached me after dismissal to debrief the situation that I became fully aware of the mistaken nature of my public display of anger. I thanked the teacher for speaking to me, and then I immediately put aside all wrathful responses from that time forward.

Please return to that last sentence and reread it with a hint of dry sarcasm as that is how it was meant to be interpreted.

I did thank the teacher for speaking with me, but inwardly the defensive thoughts were immediately activated. When standing face-to-face with such a publicly known error, it is easy to enter into a mindset that seeks to divert responsibility and to instead focus on all the things we did right. Following the situation described above, I wrestled for a number of weeks with thoughts such as:

  1. It was all the other teacher’s fault for not keeping the students’ behavior in line.
  2. I was just stressed and sleepy. Anyone would have done the same.
  3. The students needed some ‘tough love’. In fact, maybe they need more!
  4. I know that Teacher So-and-so used the same method, and everything worked out for her.
  5. I even tried to find verses of Scripture about righteous anger to hide my obvious mistake. That was quickly put to an end: So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. James 1:19-20 NKJV

If I could go back and give advice to myself, it might sound something like this – ‘Lay the excuses aside, and be open to what can be learned.’ Clearly there was a lesson to be learned from the mistake, but the temptation to participate in the unproductive cyclical thinking described above can be strong. Perhaps the field of teaching has brought a similar situation into your own life. If it has not, please be advised that it may be coming soon.

So how can we as teachers not only move on from our mistakes but also learn from them in ways that strengthen our practice and conform us more into the likeness of Christ? Consider some of the following tips:

  • Some may argue that admitting mistakes gives the impression of weakness and incompetence, but becoming open about mistakes will likely boost the relationship you have with your students and others in the school community. In fact, studies have shown that a leader such as a teacher who is able to acknowledge when he has been wrong is usually perceived as a ‘warmer’ individual and more competent in their work, resulting in better student performance and increased school enjoyment (Dimitrova & Van Hooft, 2021). The inverse also appears to be true; it is actually through ignoring our mistakes that we appear incompetent.
  • Haven’t made any mistakes recently while teaching? Probably not many of us would fall into this category, but it should be said that humility and the ability to learn are closely linked. Perhaps we are making more mistakes than we realize and could use some refinement in detecting our areas for growth. Unfortunately, we all deal with pride to some extent, and this can get in the way of both identifying and learning from our failures.
  • Sometimes a lesson we have planned does not go as well as we hoped, and adjusting the plan would make it go more smoothly next time. Find a trusted mentor, perhaps a co-teacher, who would be willing to help you work through situations where you may have been mistaken in your teaching or approach. In turn, you can do the same for others. The benefits are threefold: 1.) talking about the issue will help you both to organize your thinking; 2.) the friend may be able to offer insight into how to best solve the problem; and 3.) you will have learned something new and valuable that can help you become a more effective teacher.
  • Bring the learners (students) into the process. They surely make mistakes as well, and it can be a teachable moment to invite students into the problem-solving and correction process. For example, I am a relatively new song leader who occasionally makes mistakes when starting a congregational hymn. This can be very embarrassing. However, I have learned much through conversing with the more experienced, senior song leaders after a church service when they have made the same mistakes as me! One of my favorite teaching strategies is to replicate common student errors in my own work to see if the students can find and fix them with a purposeful explanation.

As a teacher, you have been bestowed with an excellent opportunity to learn a variety of content far beyond the studying you may find yourself doing to ‘brush up’ on some content before teaching. A career in teaching is a training ground for a teacher to build skills in leadership, relationships, organization, planning, conflict resolution, and so much more. However, the key to this opportunity typically is only available to those who are able to acknowledge and learn from their mistakes.


Dimitrova, N. G., & Van Hooft, E. A. J. (2021). In the eye of the beholder: Leader error orientation, employee perception of leader, and employee work-related outcomes. Academy of Management Discoveries, 7(4), 530-553.

Photo by George Becker: https://www.pexels.com/photo/1-1-3-text-on-black-chalkboard-374918/


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