Twenty of My Biggest Teaching Blunders

September 20, 2011

There's not a day that goes by that I don't wish I would have done something differently, asked more probing questions of my students, delivered a lesson with more flare. It is our willingness to admit our shortcomings and our drive to continue to learn and grow that makes us successful educators.

Twenty of My Biggest Teaching Blunders

Todd Finley (@finleyt on Twitter) is a regular blogger on Edutopia. He specializes in tech/literacy, has taught elementary and eighth to twelfth grade English, and co-developed the Tar River Writing Project. He teaches, researches, works with schools and publishes in the field of curriculum, instruction, and technology.

In honor of Edutopia's 20th anniversary, we're producing a series of Top 20 lists, from the practical to the sublime.


Twenty of My Biggest Teaching Blunders

We teachers make 0.7 instructional decisions per minute, according to research summaries by Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson. We make them in contexts that shift from hour to hour in overstuffed portables with finicky projectors, after grading, without enough time to collaborate, without enough information and with too much. We look confident when we’re not, look enthusiastic during second period when demoralized by first. We speed up for the majority when a few need us to slow down. We make decisions about what’s important on festive days and during dark ones, such as 9/11, when raw grief and disorientation filled America’s classrooms like hurricanes of ash.

In honor of Edutopia’s 20th Birthday, here are 20 embarrassing teaching mistakes I’d rather not repeat.

1. Grading Binges I used to read, respond to, and grade two boxes of journals in a weekend: the equivalent of two Moby Dick novels. By noon on Saturday, my overwhelmed brain would turn student reflections into word soup. Yet, I would press on, incoherently.

2. Not Preparing for the Non-Response I often fail to anticipate that many students will not share my enthusiasm for, say, a lesson on sentence variety (a new book on the subject, Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is an excellent new resource on the subject). Consequently, I have no fall back plan when my prompts elicit only silence.

3. Rushing Students need abundant time to process. I’ve tried to race students through activities that help them learn specialized concepts and vocabulary, but there are no shortcuts.

4. Pre-Lesson Agonizing Wasting time in a fog of reflective doubt (Uhmmmm. Hmmmm. Maybe that way…? No, stupid. That’s no good), I’ve over-planned thousands of classes. Think Bataan death march. Instead, Robert Boice's method of composing in a low-key state of happiness, setting the timer to take breaks, speeds up and improves lesson planning.

5. Forgetting Play I take my content area and self too seriously. Unless we’re studying Emmanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, or 9/11, fun is critical to active engagement.

6. Remembering that the Tools Are for the Kids I use multiple online tools to enhance my presentations without allowing enough time for students to explore and create with technology.

7. What Now? I remember some dark days in a tenth grade classroom, when freewheeling laughter, mimicry, banging, snickers, and swearing lay siege to my calm, where I ceded expectations and boundaries. Can I send the entire class to in-school suspension? I taught like a foreign correspondent, responding late or not at all, re-evaluating what to do and then recognizing that the moment to do something had passed. I’d never been taught Malcom Gladwell’s concept of “thin slicing,” the need to make instant decisions -- ideally good ones -- when there is not enough information.

8. Culture Blindness Teaching Madeleine L'Engle’s remarkable A Wrinkle in Time to struggling ninth grade Ojibwa students was the mistake of a white upper-middle class instructor, mining his cultural preferences. That newbie instructor should have selected a Sherman Alexie book that drew upon Alexie’s Native American experiences.

9. Wishful Teaching Thousands of my classes have ended in abstractions, where I wasn’t sure if students learned a thing. In good classes, students perform, create, or solve.

10. Rejecting Sensible Footwear For fifteen years, vanity informed my "professional" shoe choices. Cobra-skin botas, Campers, sandals, and driving moccasins augmented my classroom cool. Today, I unsuccessfully hide my limp with sauntering nonchalance and ice my Achilles tendons every night.

11. Hiding Ignorance One of my colleagues will know what to do. I should instantly walk down the hall and ask.

12. Neglecting Personal Reading Years have gone by without me reading good new fiction. What kind of model is that? Neglecting to read fiction is equivalent to being unable.

13. Discussing Insecurities In the late ‘90s, I discussed my curriculum doubts and insecurities in order to be more transparent. Bad move. Confidence resonates.

14. Political Blindness My ballooning sanctimoniousness was always punctured. Playing chicken with administrators advanced neither cause nor career.

15. Putting How before What and Why I used to think of class time as empty space to fill with presentations and activities that would help students meet objectives. I had it reversed. Setting goals should occur before inventing what will happen.

16. Distractions Watching Netflix or doing Ductivities while grading always wrecks my concentration and triples work time.

17. Omitting Novelty So many of my lessons, wrongly, did not include video (see Schoolhouse Rock), or guests, or dramatization, or a poem, or a simulation, etc.

18. Motoring Forward During discussions, I often forget to ask a follow up question like "What do you mean by that?" when I assume a student is simply wrong.

19. Not Having Models I should watch more colleagues teach in order to learn new strategies. Effective teachers love learning and wear supportive footwear.

20. Who Are You? Getting to know students is too often secondary to constructing curriculum castles that only I like to inhabit. Having kids complete inventories or present what Chico State Professor Peter Kittle calls multimedia compositions is a way to learn about student affinities and create tailored lessons. I should also facilitate more focused conferences to see how students are processing information.

I never seem to get a lesson exactly right. But according to David Cohen’s Accomplished California Teachers, "That’s what makes teaching so compelling and frustrating -- there is no correct way." Thank god.

Please do not send me your cover letter or resume. I do not work for any of these schools, I just post jobs.

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