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Nobody's Perfect

Five classic classroom blunders—and how to avoid them.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

Mary Modder was student teaching in Silver Lake, Wisconsin,w hen the school nurses came to deliver “the talk” with her 8th-graders. She recalls that the principal said students might have questions afterward and teachers should be open and honest in their responses. So when one girl asked about contractions, Modder tried her best. She told all about her son’s birth and the necessary role of contractions.

That child listened politely and then asked again, more specifically, about the uses of isn’t, wasn’t, can’t, don’t, etc., for her language arts assignment. Modder’s mistake? Assuming too much.

Everybody makes mistakes – and not all are so funny! But you can avoid the worst and learn from the missteps you’ll inevitably make anyway. With that in mind, check out our list of five of the most common mistakes and your colleagues’ advice for steering clear of them.

1. Taking it too personally

Some sweetheart in the back row tells you that you’re the worst teacher he’s had in his life. Your class is BOH-ring! Like totally irrelevant. And, half the time your assignments don’t even make sense, at all.

Now, maybe you’re a tough guy and you think, kid…you’re really pushing your luck today. Or maybe you’re a Mr. Softee and you just think, “I will not cry! I will not cry!” Either way, you can’t take the irritating things that students (or parents) say and do personally.

“With experience, you realize that taking things personally is a mistake, because not only are those things not meant to be taken personally, it will just wear you down too much if you do,” says Illinois teacher Jackie Quitter.

Consider that a student might have a legitimate beef – even if it has been offered offensively — and you may learn from it. In her “Ask the Expert,” discussion board, NEA Today’s discipline expert Kate Ortiz suggests speaking directly, privately, to that student who shouts, “I am so bored!” Say you’re interested in becoming the best teacher you can be and would like to hear his suggestions. In similar situations, Ortiz also has told students that they’re not required to “like” her class. But disruption won’t be tolerated, and they are required to do their work.

Also consider that a student’s comments or actions may reflect his problems, not yours. When a kid says he’s bored, for example, Ortiz notes that it may be because he’s actually not capable of doing the work. Sometimes students make comments because “they are hurting – not to attack you,” says Heidi Sagendorph Coffey, an alternative education teacher in New York.

Same goes for parents. “You can be the best teacher ever…and you will still have parents who complain about you. A lot of times they’re having their own issues with life or the child,” says California teacher Valerie Barnes Doyel.

2. The Superhero complex

First there are the lesson plans – you need to write them. (Life’s mystery: why does it take 45 minutes to write a 30-minute lesson?) Then, there are the student papers – you need to read them, grade them. Parents must be called. Paperwork must be filled out. And then there’s the small matter of the upcoming benchmarks… So, when your a.p. says, “We think you’d make a wonderful debate coach next semester and, oh, we’ve also got a slot for you on the school’s technology committee – and, hey, let’s just sign you up to chaperone prom, okay?”

You do not say, “Hooray!”

You say, “How nice of you to think of me! But I really can’t right now.”

The truth is: You actually can’t do everything – and do it well.

“Don’t try to do it all,” warns Washington teacher Martha Patterson. “It is okay to say no to chaperoning dances and organizing fundraisers. Remember you’ve been hired to teach.”

And forget that backpack that you’ve stuffed with papers to bring home each night. Teachers deserve personal lives too. For Patterson, it works better to get to school early or often stay late, but she leaves work at work. She also reminds her colleagues to make time for themselves – “exercise, read for fun, do a craft, hang out with friends.” Otherwise, you’re taking the straight road to resentment and burnout, she warns.

3. The “I’m not political” syndrome

So you think political advocacy is irrelevant to your teaching life. No, no, no, that’s a big mistake!

Look around your classroom – the number of students, the SmartBoard in the corner, the day’s test-prep lesson on the board, and even the ratio of wall posters to undecorated space – it’s all dictated by law. How much are you paid? Did you or a colleague get a pink slip last year?

And you still think politics is irrelevant?

Monica Mixon, an education support professional (ESP) in Pennsylvania, wasn’t always a political animal, she admits. She voted because her grandmother told her to. But in 2008, when her colleagues encouraged her to participate in a phone bank, she did – and she caught the bug. Now she enthusiastically calls her colleagues to encourage them to vote for pro-public education candidates and she meets with her state legislators in the hopes of informing their votes.

For her, it’s a matter of protecting her job and her colleagues’ jobs. “I’m an ESP – and you know ESPs are always the first to get cut,” says Mixon, a classroom aide in Montgomery County.

With technology, it’s easier than ever. Check out for its direct links to Congressional inboxes!

4. Getting stuck in a rut

After a few years on the job, you might start looking at your 401K or 403B statements with a wistful eye. It’s hard to imagine staying on the job for another 5, 10, 25 years. It’s hard work, isn’t it? Exhausting, even. But it’s a mistake to think that a lack of enthusiasm is inevitable. Many of your colleagues know the secrets to staying excited about education – and they’re willing to share.

Here’s one: Be a learner!

“I take new classes as often as I can, so that I do not lose sight of the humility required to learn something new,” says South Carolina special educator Ann Nichols. “Allow yourself the pleasure of continuing to learn.”

“Every year, I’m surrounded by a new group of unique human beings, whom I respect,” says Mississippi high school English teacher Renee Moore, “Every year they help me learn something new about my subject, about how to teach, and about myself.”

Many experienced teachers keep fresh by going for National Board Certification, a challenging process that will keep your brain cells firing.

5. Sweating the small stuff

In case you didn’t catch it earlier, allow us to say it again: Everybody makes mistakes. Expecting that someday you’ll get everything just right might be the biggest mistake of all!

Listen to your own advice, suggests Dianne Cox, a middle school teacher in Kansas for 22 years. You probably have told your students, repeatedly, as Cox does, that you actually expect them to make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process. (When they understand that message, you’ll find they raise their hands much more often in class, Cox predicts.)

“I tell my students we’re all human. If we didn’t make mistakes, we would be aliens,” Cox says – and the same goes for you. Relax, take a deep breath, and learn from your mistakes.

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