Embracing your inner screw-up

A message I have tried to put forth in my years as a math teacher and a math coach is to go forth and make mistakes. I encourage teachers to do this as well as students. I think everybody should make mistakes often, and own those mistakes.

It is comforting to hear another person say, “Oops, I messed up,” because I mess up a lot and I enjoy knowing other people do too.

Our culture does not often embrace mistakes, and thus we have fewer opportunities to see the value in our mistakes. We see mistakes as failures only, and not as evidence, or as newly gained information. One cannot deny that mistakes in life sometimes lead to unfortunate circumstances, or even tragedy. But most of the time, our mistakes ultimately lead to a better outcome, even if we fail to acknowledge it or notice. Receiving a stiff fine from a speeding ticket typically results in safer driving practices, at least for a time. Taking a wrong turn on a hiking trail leads to better awareness of a trail network. Making a mistake on a math problem leads to greater understanding of an algorithm or a mathematical property. And making mistakes as a teacher leads to better teaching practices.

Great teaching, as is true with many occupations, is an art that is cultivated through experimentation, reflection, revision, collaboration and further experimentation. There needs to be sufficient flexibility within the teaching profession and other professions to allow for constant experimentation and mistakes, or else we create a professional climate of unreasonable and unrealistic expectations.

I remember during my second year as a certified teacher, I was mid-lesson when a young person dropped by my classroom with a stack of important family letters written by the principal that needed to go home with students that day. “Mr. V. said it is important for these to be sent home with every student today,” the boy told me. “O.K., thank you very much,” I responded, and I took the stack of letters, put them in what I thought was a prominent, highly visible location where I would not lose track of them, and I went on teaching. The teaching day ended, the whirlwind of afternoon homeroom and dismissal happened, kids went home, and the stack of letters remained on the front corner of my desk. I absolutely hate it when I make mistakes like that. “No!!” I exclaimed, and then muttered I’m sure a few colorful terms under my breath. The letters had been important because there had been a number of lice cases discovered that afternoon, and parents needed to be aware of the risks and precautions.

I had to fess up to my principal. That afternoon there was a staff meeting scheduled, and I made it a point to walk up to my principal and confess to my neglect. “Ben,” I said, “I goofed today. When you sent that student around with the letters to send, I was teaching and somehow managed to put them aside, and they did not go out with my homeroom students today.”

“Tate,” he said, “I’m very disappointed.”

I was crushed. I wanted to hear that it was ok, that these things happen in a busy environment, but it really wasn’t. It was my professional responsibility to get those letters out and I had failed to execute. I tend to internalize failures, and let them brew until I get really down on myself. My boss’ feedback left me feeling like a failure of a teacher, a failure of a professional, a failure of an adult, or all three. I left work that day as low as can be, and did not sleep that night. In the morning, I made sure the letters were in every child’s backpack to go home that afternoon, but the damage had been done. Parents needed that information yesterday. The consequences of my actions (or inaction, actually) were profound and lasting, but it should not have been that way.

I cannot place blame on my supervisor, who was a school principal I had a lot of respect for, for coming down too hard on me. In theory, he did the right thing as a disciplinarian. He was disappointed, and he needed to let me know that. He wanted me to learn from that mistake, and to see it as a mess-up that should not be brushed aside and forgotten.

It was not forgotten, alright.

Today when I look back on that situation, I realize his feedback didn’t have the best possible impact. His criticism landed hard on a sensitive guy like me, so hard that it left a dust cloud that impaired my ability to rectify the situation. It was not his fault as an administrator, and I would not say his reaction was out of line with the culture of supervisory professionalism. I would say, however, that that culture does not properly value the potential for growth that comes with a mistake like that. Here’s what I wish he had said to me after I had revealed to him my mistake:

“That’s unfortunate. Those letters really needed to get home today. Is there anything you can do to rectify the situation?”

Granted, that’s the very question I should have asked myself instead of internalizing my failure to follow through with a simple task (and entirely beating myself up over it). But this second response would have eliminated one key useless element that came with his initial words: shame. “I’m very disappointed [in you],” indeed tosses an unnecessary punishment in the form of shame in along with the consequence package, and that shame dug into me deep enough to keep me from thinking rationally about the scenario.

If I could have that day back, I’d have called up all the parents of students in my homeroom and given them the message myself, over the phone. I did that kind of thing on occasion! There is nothing convenient about making 18 phone calls at the end of a long workday, but it sure beats lying awake for hours at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking, “I’m a failure.”
There is automatic shame imbedded in the act of making mistakes in our culture, and I don’t think there should be.

To clarify, by “mistakes,” I’m excluding intentional misbehavior, deceit, or criminal intent. I don’t think there is much of a place anywhere in the universe for shame, but neither is there value in those kinds of errant actions. Issue consequences where consequences are due. Sometimes people commit the same mistakes over and over without learning from them, which certainly can raise questions about one’s competence. Mistakes worth making are generally not those we can foresee or predict before we make them.

Eliminating the element of shame from the natural and valuable act of making productive mistakes might help to prevent the same mistake from happening twice, but better yet, it allows one to see a mistake for what it is. Mistakes are clues to help guide us toward success. Problem solving often takes courage and perseverance, along with a willingness and flexibility to make mistakes. Teachers, students, artists, engineers, and politicians should be encouraged to make mistakes, own them, learn from them, and then adjust accordingly.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I am a math strategist in RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal and Durham, Maine), and have been teaching for ten years. These days I help oversee the math curriculum in my district and I coach and support teachers (mostly K-6) in their math instruction. My interests in education extend far beyond math, though.. I have been a passionate writer and musician since I was a young child. I have a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.