13 April 2017, The Tablet

A significant part of a teacher’s role is inextricably linked with mistakes


Mistakes are strange things. They have the capacity to make us feel intimidated, incapable, useless. Depending upon the nature of our personal or professional lives, errors have the potential to be damaging, dangerous or even fatal. Mistakes are personal. We judge ourselves and others by them. We actively plan to avoid them. Sometimes we formally penalise them. And yet, most writing on the subject of mistakes is overwhelmingly encouraging. We are reassured that they are a part of becoming greater. They do not define you. They are proof that you are trying.

The motivational posters that adorn many classroom walls proudly proclaim this philosophy and some schools weave similar language into their mission statements and mottos. Though many students say they understand that mistakes are vital in making progress, when they happen their emotional response is not so positive.

A significant part of a teacher’s role is inextricably linked with mistakes. We have to draw students’ attention to common errors when discussing a topic; we explain that certain fundamental errors may have a negative impact on exam results, even leading to failure, in some cases. Practically, we make these errors impossible to ignore, highlighting them in green or neon yellow pen. In many schools, marking policies specify that teachers provide “actionable comments” to which students should respond in the next lesson.

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