7 New Teacher Mistakes and What You Can Learn from Them

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Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/ktB4mj
Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/ktB4mj

Running into a former student recently reminded me of the best new teacher mistakes I made. You read right; I said, best mistakes.

She trotted up to me as I ate lunch at a picnic table just outside the doors of a school district I work in. Wrapping her hands around me from behind and covering my eyes, she laughed as she teased, “Guess who?”

I took things personally, and this made me self-aware and compassionate.
I turned around and broke into a wide smile. It’s moments like these that make working in education incomparable to any other profession: those moments when you realize that shy eighth graders quickly blossom into the sort of adults you enjoy becoming friends with over time.

“What are  you doing here?” I asked, a bit thrown by meeting her in such an uncommon place. I knew she lived quite a distance away.

“I’m interviewing for a job, and I made it to the second round.” She was beaming.

“When will you hear?”

“By the end of this week,” she sighed nervously, slipping into the seat across from me. “I think I did okay today. I asked good questions. The principal seems like a good leader.”

“He is,” I assured her. “Would this be your first job?”

She nodded before asking, “Do you have any advice for me?”

“Oh, I was a cautionary tale,” I sighed, rolling my eyes. “I made a lot of mistakes. We all do.”

“Which mistakes were your best?” she teased me again, and I realized that this was a great question to chew on over lunch.

7 useful new teacher mistakes, and the important lessons they bring

1. I expected too much, and this taught me to get comfortable with uncomfortable. Over twenty years later, I’m still never satisfied. My work is never done. It’s never the best that it can be either, and often, plans that still need improvement are replaced with new, imperfect plans. I don’t know any experienced teacher who doesn’t feel the same.

2. I expected too little from my administrators, and this taught me to problem solve on my own. I forged closer relationships with the colleagues who truly supported me, and I worked even harder to communicate with parents, whose support I also needed.

3. I tried to improve at everything all at once, and this taught me the power of prioritization and depth over breadth. I still set just one major professional learning goal each year, and I still sit down at the start of each week and ask myself what I will do to pursue it. I’ve learned to keep other needs on my radar, but I no longer stress myself out over everything I don’t know and the things I want to get better at. I know that the day that I become an expert is the day that I stop learning, and learning is what keeps my passion for this work alive. Truly.

4. I was intimidated by my administrators, and this made me more human. When I was young, I regarded my administrators as authoritative parent figures. I think many new teachers do, and this often fuels a unhealthy dynamic that great administrators do not enjoy or endorse. The moment I realized that the best administrators were often just as eager but uncertain as I was, something in me softened. So did the hard line I drew between myself and the great leaders I knew.

5. I took things personally, and this made me self-aware and compassionate. I worry a great deal about how my words and actions might influence others–perhaps too much, I’m often told. I’m okay with that. I wish more people were okay with that, too. It would solve some of the biggest problems I witness inside of schools and departments and teams. It creates other problems as well, but those problems are usually less destructive than the ones created by those who struggle to distinguish congeniality from kindness.

6. I worried too much about what the wrong people thought, and this taught me an important lesson: certain kinds of ambitious people are often easily threatened, and sometimes, doing good work for the right reasons will invite their scorn. Yes, even service professions like education have a dark side, and we need to own it. Gaining this awareness helped me determine when it was fair for someone to be displeased with my ideas and my work and when my ideas and work were intimidating others and provoking passive aggressive or other abusive behaviors. I’ve learned how to set necessary boundaries and how to walk away from toxic people and situations.

7. I didn’t have a vision, and this taught me the importance of alignment. Each time a new set of standards, a new promising practice, or a new mandate washed into our system, I listened to those who suggested we couldn’t adopt it without abandoning something else that mattered a great deal. This was soul crushing and eventually, career-altering.

I left the classroom because I assumed that helping kids perform well on standardized assessments meant abandoning writer’s workshop and other approaches that I held dear. I left disappointed but determined to seek different work within the field that would provide resolutions, and I have.

When we have a vision of the teacher we hope to be and the learner we hope to shape, it’s our responsibility to create alignment between that vision and the standards, practices, and mandates that confront us. This isn’t impossible work, and doing it makes us smarter, stronger, and far more strategic teachers.

Had I known way back when what I know now, my first years of teaching would have been far different. I’m not sure if I would change a thing if I had it to do all over again, though. I’ve learned a great deal from my mistakes.

How about you? Which new teachers mistakes were your best? Please share yours in our comment section below.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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