Embracing the Rookie Mistake

Messy Teacher Desk

There are two stories from my first year of teaching that I often share when speaking to beginners. They’re not inspirational. Nor are they the type of embarrassing-but-ultimately harmless mistakes that were “really just learning experiences.” In one story, I shut down a student’s motivation for weeks. In the other, I set up a diligent student as a target for a class full of bullies.

I’m not proud of these stories.

I share these stories because they show some important features of rookie teaching mistakes.

However many systemic problems confront teachers—and, to be sure, there are plenty—the hardest days new teachers face are often the ones where they are the problem.

Slip-ups along the steep first-year learning curve fill educators with shame, make them wonder if they’re cut out for the job, and probably contribute to the profession’s notoriously high dropout rate.

They’re also inevitable.

To be a beginner is to confront an onslaught of judgment calls you’ve never made before. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re making a judgement call.

In the story mentioned above, I didn’t set out to shut down a student’s motivation. I was following, with the purest of intentions, one of the principles I’d learned in teacher training: Set high expectations. The best way to let students know you believe in them is to give constructive feedback about how they can improve.

Many of the “rules” new teachers learn in training are good. But even good rules have exceptions.

Here’s an example of one such exception: Let’s say there’s shy nine-year-old who speaks almost no English. Let’s say this kid has spend most of the year staring out the window and drawing. Now let’s say this nine-year-old has just copied his first page of English-language writing off the board. He doesn’t seem to understand exactly what he wrote, but he’s clearly proud of his work. There’s a glow in his eyes that the teacher has not seen much during the year. What should the teacher not do in this case? Offer constructive criticism. Remind the kid he should have indented at the beginning of his paragraphs.

It was only as I spoke the words and struggled to make them understood, as the student dropped his eyes toward his paper and refused to look back up, and later when he went back to drawing and staring out the window for the next three weeks, that I realized I’d made a huge mistake.

Sometimes more than one rule applies to a situation.

The rule I should have followed was something more like this: Give positive reinforcement. Show students they can get your attention by making the right choices. This was another of the principles I’d learned in training. It was another good piece of advice that was absolutely right—except when it wasn’t.

This was the advice I was trying to follow in the other story referenced above, when I singled out and applauded a seventh grader for being the only kid in his rowdy summer-school class to turn in the homework. One of the class’s many bullies muttered something under his breath. I didn’t hear what it was; I only know that this student never again handed in another piece of homework.

Rookie mistakes usually don’t come from a place of no knowledge at all. They come from a place of a little bit of knowledge.

They’re more likely to be earnest efforts to use what we’ve learned in theory before we understand it in practice. We overdo advice that’s good in principle or take out the right tool at the wrong time.

Put another way: many of our first-timer fumbles are not something we did completely wrong but something we did almost right.

Our brains are “prediction machines” trained through experience. We have to learn the rules before we learn the exceptions to those rules.

Neuroscientists have described our brains as prediction machines; they draw on past experience to narrow down their guesses about what might come next. The more nuanced information we’ve absorbed, the better these predictions can guide us. Reading expert Mark Seidenberg, author of Language at the Speed of Sight, notes that this is also how beginning readers get better at sounding out words. It’s huge progress when an emerging reader first learns to sound out the letter L. But until they learn the exceptions, they’re likely to misread a word like should. This is the natural progression of learning to read. It’s a feature, not a bug.

It’s no coincidence that our most exciting first strides are intertwined with our most cringeworthy missteps; our models of the world are only as complete as our past experience allows them to be.

If you’re a teacher, you’ve likely heard the term growth mindset, coined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. Growth mindset is the belief that our abilities grow over time based on the work we put in. It’s the reason adults are no longer supposed to tell kids they “are smart,” or, “are good at math.” We’re supposed to praise the improvement: they worked hard at learning, and their hard work paid off. And mistakes? They’re not proof that a kid is bad at anything. They’re part of the work of getting better.

It’s easy to see why teachers are encouraged to foster a growth mindset in students. But as adults, it can be difficult to stomach the idea that we’re fated to screw up sometimes. Especially when the stakes are high.

As a first-year teacher, I knew any lessons I learned the hard way were even harder on my students. This could inspire me to fixate on my failures, immersing me in a spiral of self-loathing that—looking back—wasn’t helpful to anyone in the room.

Beginning educators naturally hope to be great from day one. This is reinforced by constant messages that teaching is the most important job in the world and failure is not an option. Which is too bad, because despite what you may have seen in the movies, you can’t believe-in-the-kids so hard that you never mess up. And no one wants to fail at the most important job in the world.

The only real option is start where you are, and get one real, permanent step better at a time. The path toward greatness is a long line of such steps, with all of their accompanying stumbles.

Years after the incidents I described above, I had another student whose hard work set him apart among a difficult group of classmates. By that point in my career, experience had taught me that this kid would not want to be singled out in front of that group of classmates. But it had also taught me never to pass up an opportunity to tell kids when they’re doing a great job. One day, this student showed up to class early. I told him I was proud of his perseverance and high-quality work. He said thank you and went to his seat and continued to be an excellent student. The next year, he returned to tell me he was taking several honors classes.

As inspirational teaching stories go, this one’s pretty lame. It would make a terrible final scene in a Hollywood edu-drama. Then again, it doesn’t have to be. It wasn’t the final scene of anything.

One of the most inspiring things about this story is that it was just one moment in over a decade of (mostly) successful teaching and nearly two decades of supporting incoming teachers through the hardest parts of their rookie years. Just as worst moments in a new endeavor often aren’t always dramatic, sometimes the best ones aren’t, either. Sometimes they’re just small, happy signs of how far you’ve come; you’ll never be new at this again.

Learning to see amateur errors as a right of passage can keep us from taking them as a sign we’re not cut out for this—whatever this may be in the moment.

And forgiving our early trespasses has another benefit: the willingness to step out into the unknown and make the next round of rookie mistakes.

You can’t correct course until you’ve started moving forward.

The only way to get better is to get started.

So you might as well get started.

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