Saturday, May 21, 2011

Everyone Makes Mistakes (So Why Can't I?)

First, a trip down memory lane:

I made a terrible, awful, horrible mistake on Friday. I was working with a student, reviewing his paper for citations, and I overheard another student saying something awful. One of those things that takes me to a very angry place very quickly. I responded without thinking and I yelled at him. Loudly. I just. . . snapped. And when the student tried to explain, I was still too upset to let him finish what he was saying.

Thing is, I misheard him. He'd said nothing like what I thought he'd said. I yelled at a student, and made him feel awful, for doing exactly nothing wrong. And the guilt is eating me up.

As soon as I realized what a horrible, terrible mistake I made, I apologized. Profusely. And the student, very graciously, accepted my apology. I don't think any long-term damage was done to our relationship. But still, it's eating me up.

This is not, by any means, the first mistake I've made while teaching. Not the first mistake I've made this year. Probably not even the first mistake I made that day (and it probably also wasn't the last).

I've been thinking a lot this year about resiliency and reflection and how to make students more comfortable with mistakes. I've always believed that learning is a messy process in which failure is inherent; most days I take the Red Queen's approach to impossible things and apply it to mistakes. I try to think of myself as someone who can make a mistake, admit it, fix the problem, and move on. I admit that I've sometimes had difficulty empathizing with students who hit (what seems to me) a small roadblock and completely shut down.

And so, in light of this encounter, I've been thinking about how we think about mistakes--whether a mistake is something you DO, as opposed to a mistake being something you ARE. And whether there are some mistakes that hit a little harder at our core.

As long time readers of this blog (or people who know me personally--hi Mom!) know, I work at a school for students with learning disabilities. Sadly, many of my students come to our school having been badly abused by the educational system; they've been treated as if their difficulty with learning--and the mistakes they make as a result of that--says something about who they are as people. And it's not a nice thing.

I pride myself on my ability to build relationships with students, to talk to them about difficult subjects, to guide them through a subject (whether that's the Battle of Gettysburg or the use of respectful language), and to do some calmly and rationally. Which is, I think, why this mistake is hitting me so hard. It hits much closer to my self-perception than using the wrong keywords for searching.

I know, ultimately, that this mistake is not all that defines me as a teacher, but it's been a good reminder of how debilitating a mistake can seem. It is helping me get a better understanding of how my students feel when they make a mistake while learning. When a mistake seems to be about who you are as a person, it's hard to simply move on. I still don't know how to help students with this process, but I feel better equipped to empathize with them as they move through the process.


P.S. If you have found your way here from the Salem Library Blog awards, welcome! And thank you! I'm overwhelmed and flattered to even be on such a list.

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