Teachers, learn from your mistakes

Leaders lead by example, and so do teachers. We teach by example. How many times do we tell our students not to be afraid of making mistakes? Then we should do that too to ourselves. During my first year of teaching my aim was simple: to gain as much teaching experience as I can, and I did. Second year it only got better. Third year I was much more confident to the point that I was so sure my techniques and methodes were the best and most efficient that I turned a blind eye to my own shortfall.

Fourth year, as class size and program design might no more be an issue, I felt something was missing. My teaching practices had grown monotonous as I started to overlook quality over quantity (thinking number of students was what mattered the most). Students became less motivated and English classes were considered to be nothing more than a mere obligation from their company (I teach mostly ESP). By that time, I thought, “I have to do something. I need to change.”

Learning from mistakes means we can identify which practice works the least and which works the best – for us and our students. One practice can be successful in one class, but fail in the other. It is only by more experience and teaching hours that we can raise our self-awareness in this area. Learning from mistakes also helps us with our professional development and makes us a better teacher. These 3 are what I learned the most about my mistakes in the past:

1) Beware of becoming an accuracy freak.

A teacher should be aware as when to become a control freak grammar Nazi and an English teacher. If you are asked to edit an English textbook, you might have to be strict with grammar rules as they are important. However, if you are teaching a class of elementary leveled students, I don’t think that’s the case. I used to be strict with grammar, but as I went on, I came to realize that fear of making mistakes is one of the main reasons that hinders students’ progress.

Mistakes are part of learning. Mistakes should be considered a sign of breakthrough instead of setback. In the past 2 months I have been applying the ‘no correction, no judgement on students’ mistakes’ policy in an ESP class I’m teaching. The outcome is tremendous. Students’ participation, confidence, and self-correction increases. No more shyness and passivity. Changing how I give corrections that keeps them comfortable also builds trust. Students no longer feel patronized.

Mistakes should be considered as a sign of breakthrough, not setback.

2) Always adjust to your students’ speed.

One day I was drilling my 12 year old private tutoring student with exam questions (as the summative test was near), when she whined that she didn’t want to do that, but other things instead. Pulling out game cards I brought with me, she refused doing any game as well. Thinking that my way was the only way, I was frustrated and talked to her mother, expressing my concern. I even mistakenly considered her as in-compliant, but a few meetings afterwards opened my eyes. I was wrong.

It was me as a teacher who failed to understand that as a student she has her own learning speed and preference that she feels comfortable with, and has the right to comply to them. I found that she prefers one-on-one discussion in English to being forced to answer test questions, and apparently this is the best way she learns English. Now she gains much more confidence and is better to cooperate with since I follow her way instead of me imposing mine. And yes, she’s a very chatty 12-year-old!

3) Learning pace is not always linear.

As a first or second year teacher, have you ever been in a situation when you get to a new class then panic on what to teach them and how? Then you turn to ‘holy’ textbooks that you think will save you from all the fuss and worry? I used textbooks all the time (I even worshipped them at some point!), but here’s the thing about them: if you go through the chapters, sub-chapters, and pages one by one according to their original order, the class will lose its dynamics. It becomes dull.

Learning pace does not have to be linear. We can modify and adjust it based on our needs, as long as it makes up the syllabus. Using a textbook is commendable, but how we use it makes all the difference. I usually go from one topic to another, jump from one page to another, as long as I make good connection and flow. Instead of following a strict order, I pace the materials based on class situation. I also choose to use mixed materials than a single book. Keeping the class dynamic is the key.

One reason why I enjoy being a teacher is because I am also an avid learner. This means that inevitably, I am (and will always be) in the process of learning to become a better teacher. What I do today might not be as efficient in the future. I believe as long as we have the willingness to learn, we will continue to grow. Isn’t this the exact same thing we expect from our students? How about you? What have you learned so far from your own mistakes? Share them with me! 🙂

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