Tom Starkey: learning to live with mistakes

  • Tom Starkey: learning to live with mistakes

It’s not the victories or successes, the ‘A’ grades, smiles, or thank you cards that’ll stay with you. If there’s anything that shapes the teacher that you are, or the teacher that you’ll become, it’s the mistakes that you make.

And oh my goodness, there will be such mistakes.

If I were some sort of weird masochist type then I’d proceed to regale you with some of the horrific missteps from my own career by way of illustration for cheap thrills… ah, who am I kidding? Here we go!

  • First year in I accidentally gave my Year 10 class my personal email address. My actual, normal, everyday email address. It was in the header of a PowerPoint I used for media coursework. I only realised what I’d done when I started getting emails with subject headings like ‘HEY TEACH! YOU ARE A COMPLETE ***&&*&**’ and such.
  • I ripped the electric cable out of the wall trying to move a computer from one side of the room to another without taking the plug out mid lesson one time. A couple of unthinking tugs and boom: £800 worth of damage and much hilarity.
  • I called a girl by the wrong name. For two months. There were tears. Eventually.
  • I took the football team to the semi-final of the inter-school cup. On the wrong day.

And that is just the PG rated stuff because, to tell you the truth, the complete list would be far too abominable to ever, ever see print. So don’t even ask. Seriously. Just… don’t.

We all want to do the best that we possibly can. And we certainly want the best for those we teach, I think that goes without saying. We’re prepared for the times when marking replaces sleep or when a clueless manager makes a dunder-headed decree or when we have to try above and beyond to reach a student that really needs our help. But one of the things that is really, really hard to deal with is the sheer, sudden ice-cold-bath-of-water embarrassment that the job can bring. You don’t understand pain until you’ve had 20-odd 14-year-olds in apoplectic gales of laughter at an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction or when one of your charges points out that you’ve already taught them the exact same lesson a week ago but it’s alright though sir, it’s a really good lesson and you should try not to worry about it too much.

For some reason the sharp, jagged memories of humiliation tend to hang on that little bit more desperately than the fluffy clouds of positive past recollections. You could have a great year where it’s been 99.9% clear sailing, the kids have been great, the teaching has gone well but there was that time, that one time, when you slipped on a carelessly discarded burger wrapper in the cafeteria in front of everyone and even the staff couldn’t keep a straight face. Damn them.

It’s an inescapable contradiction that teaching is an important, noble profession that often plays out like a Laurel and Hardy slapstick routine (but with less grace and timing). Not only do we have to contend with the everyday trials and tribulations of corridors and classrooms, we are also often haunted by the spectre of past mistakes. Some of them are trivial; some of them are not – but all of them clatter after you like Jacob Marley’s chains – a constant reminder of your own shortcomings.

So what to do when it comes to mistakes? Nobody wants to be dragging those things about with them all the time – they’re heavy and they chafe something awful. So here’s what I think: the first thing you’ve got to do is to accept that you’re going to make an absolute shedload of really hideously embarrassing errors in your career (you can double that number if you’re just starting out). Try not to, obviously, but realise that there will be certain points when it will all go wrong and it will be an absolute nightmare. And then, when that does happen, instead of obsessing over it for years to come, treat it as a lesson. Figure out why it went wrong and do your best not to do the same daft thing again. And don’t endlessly beat yourself up about it.

Because there’ll be more than enough kids and staff to do that for you.

About the author

Tom Starkey is a teacher in an FE college in the north of England. He blogs at stackofmarking.word @tstarkey1212