Damage Control: How Teachers Can Rebound from Classroom Mistakes

You are going to make mistakes. Once you realize that, you’re bound to make fewer mistakes and to recover from them faster.

Teachers need strategies to help them rebound from mistakes in the classroom.Most of your teaching mistakes will be innocuous and easy to recover from: poorly considered lessons that aren’t engaging, grammatical or spelling errors on a test, and even mixed-up communications with students, parents or colleagues. Mistakes are acceptable, provided you don’t make the same ones over and over again.

Make them, learn and move on.

It may happen, though, that you make a more serious mistake — losing your temper with a student, having a seriously negative interaction with a parent or colleague, or missing an important deadline. These incidents do not have to become major issues. It’s all a matter of whether you escalate or de-escalate things.

Here’s how to prevent mistakes from turning into career-damaging calamities:

Talk to your colleagues

Research shows that teachers are far more likely to seek guidance from a colleague before they turn to a supervisor. Hopefully, you’ve been cultivating strong relationships with your fellow teachers — and now is the time to turn to them.

Find the seasoned, caring veteran in your building and outline your situation. Ask for direct guidance and be ready to act on it.  It is important, though, to make sure you agree with the advice. Don’t let yourself be talked into doing something that doesn’t sit well with you.

Speak to your supervisor

I had the good fortune to work for my father for many years. My first day on the job, he told me I was going to make mistakes and the two most important things I needed to do were to not repeat them, and to tell someone about them. Keeping a mistake to yourself and hoping no one notices is the worst thing to do.

If you’ve been building a good rapport with your supervisor, your hard work and positive attitude have helped burnish your reputation. Now is the time to make a withdrawal from that bank of goodwill. Without hesitation, and as soon as possible after realizing your error, go directly to your supervisor and spill the beans on yourself. Ask for advice on how to fix the error, avoid it in the future and move on.

Accept responsibility

Whether you’re talking to a colleague or supervisor, be sure to focus on your role in the situation. The natural instinct may be to blame other people, but the only way to grow is to acknowledge your contribution to the mistake.

Taking ownership of the problem (and the solution) is crucial to keep it from happening again. After you fully review your part, only then should you begin to find other places to lay blame. Yes, others have a role in what happened, but your mistake is your mistake. Own it.

Don’t let errors stack up

A single error is exactly that. Most schools can tolerate a misstep, but you don’t want to let a single incident evolve into a pattern where colleagues are always cleaning up after you.

You also don’t want supervisors repeatedly having to address situations you create or are a part of. Avoid embroiling yourself in another situation that can be seen as a blemish on your professional reputation. Be prudent and cautious in your decisions, and don’t fall back into the same patterns again and again.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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