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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What to Do if You’re Having an Off Day – Learning from Failure

Boy, oh boy. When I think back to my first year teaching (I was a new math teacher at a high school just outside Washington, D.C.), I wonder what kind of damage I might have inflicted on those students!! I was brand new to teaching, had just moved to the area and didn’t know anyone, and my daughter was just entering her teenage years – sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? I had a mentor teacher from a different high school - and she was a wonderful mentor - but there were lots of days when I felt like a complete failure and just wanted to wallow in my own misery. Don’t get me wrong – there were good days, too! Seeing the light go on for students (remember, it’s math!) is what kept me going back everyday. So how did I learn to deal with those off days?

My mentor teacher gave me lots of hints. The first and most important was to learn from any perceived failures in class. I still use this lens when I have the opportunity to teach a class. Here are three recommendations from Josh Stock who wrote about failure in this article on the Edutopia website:

1. Before the lesson goes wrong, always have a backup plan. 

2. Ask yourself: "Why did that lesson fail?" 

3. Come up with a plan for the next day. 


Number 1 supports my recommendation of “over prepare” in case things do go wrong. Have short activities that you can insert which will bring things back together. Remember that formative assessments “take the temperature of the room,” and you should have a few “back pocket” techniques, as author James Lang calls them, that you can whip out and check on how things are going.

Numbers 2 and 3 fall into the category of reflecting on your practice. As Josh Stock says, “Having a bad lesson doesn’t make you a bad teacher. We all have off days. It’s what you do afterwards that makes the difference.” Bring mindfulness to your teaching and make room for reflection. This is where YOUR learning takes place. Even though at the end of the day there is grading and MORE planning to do, take several minutes to review what happened (or didn’t happen) in class. Were students not engaged? Were they not responding with correct answers? Did you get looks from them telling you they had no idea what was going on?

Sometimes it’s possible to recover during the class, but if not, at the end of class – in the last 5 minutes – ask

students to do a 5-minute write on the class. I like to raid the recycling bin and find all those rejects from the copy machine that are printed on just one side. I cut them in half and then have a stack in the classroom. Grab a couple and ask students to summarize the class as an “exit ticket.” You could ask something like, “What was the most important take-away for you today?” After class it’s important to read the responses (as much as you might not like the responses, students are EXCELLENT sources of data!) and then report back to students what you learned. Closing the feedback loop will let students know that you heard them and are truly interested in their learning. Tell them what will happen as a result of what you heard. You can begin the next class with, “looks like I need to review the quadratic equation today, so let’s begin with another example.” That tells students that this is an important topic and you are willing to spend a bit more time on it. Of course, it may be the case that the class wasn’t as bad a failure as you thought! Using a formative assessment like this helps students to be more reflective, too. A win-win all around!

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