I worry that some students might get diminished by any negative observations. There is that theory about building high self-esteem, after all, and I certainly don’t remember my teachers caring about my self-esteem (and I didn’t like it). However, I’ve found (and read) that this approach is ultimately ineffective. Better is having very high expectations of each student. Sure, it is essential to balance positive comments with discussions of areas needing improvement but even this doesn’t quite work for me. What I have settled on for the moment is to care about the student’s work and reflect to them the strengths they’ve displayed and the areas for further work. I’ve tried hard to build a culture of kaizen (constant improvement) and one that accepts mistakes. “Cherish mistakes,” I’ve taught them, “being wrong is on the road to being right.” What I hope and expect will happen is that they will quickly learn they are working in a safe environment where all feedback is positive whether it highlights areas of strength or weakness.
Mistakes are, after all, unavoidable. We have only three options for dealing with them.
First, we can work hard to prevent as many as possible. Getting solid training, as we are doing, is a good step. Referring back to our texts from time to time would help too. I find I frequently see things that I missed when I go back to old sources. As we grow and gain experience, we have more context for the lessons we have been taught and those lessons reveal more meaning. We can also continue with our professional development and continuing education to increase skills. With all this training, we simply need to add careful, thoughtful planning and constant self-scrutiny. By doing all these things, we will reduce our incidence of mistakes.
Second, we can be aware of mistakes when they occur to minimize their damage. Sometimes this is as simple as correcting a misstatement. Other times, it actually involves some clean up, perhaps an apology. Yet, in my experience, the density of mistakes in the world is so high that circling back to ameliorate a mistake frequently causes more problems than it solves. The best way to make up for a mistake is often to keep moving forward, committing do better in the future.
Third, we can identify and analyze mistakes after they have occurred in order to adjust our behavior and reduce their likelihood in the future. This is not hard but it does require discipline and the willingness to constantly be reminded of our human fallibility.
The good news is that constantly learning from mistakes is the best way to constantly increase professional competence and outcomes. By committing to learn from our mistakes, we commit to striving for the very highest levels of achievement for our students. That is more than worth the effort.