I am the Mistress of Mistakes, the Empress of Errors, a veritable Goddess of Goof-ups. Ask any of my students and you’ll be regaled with tales of awful arithmetic and hideous calculus.
What? That last one wasn’t alliteration? Oops-I meant calamitous calculus! Would you believe I did that to see if you were paying attention? Seriously, thanks for catching that. Glad someone’s awake, just sorry it isn’t me! Now you see you my point about proofreading; no matter how well you know what you’re doing, you’re going to make mistakes. It happens to the best of us. It also happens to me sometimes. You do know your IQ drops thirty points when you’re writing for an audience, right?
Variations on the statements above and others like them comprise my repertoire of responses to the innumerable imperfections infesting even my simplest solutions. What can I say? Attention to detail isn’t my fourth, er, forte.
I wasn’t always so cavalier toward correction. The first time a student caught a mistake I had made, I could feel my cheeks getting hot and presumably red. When finished lecturing, I forced myself to walk up and thank him for catching my error. I started using humor after that and found that my minute mental lapses and the jokes I used to brush them off were actually a good way to bond with my class. In general, my many miniscule mistakes and even an occasional overwhelmingly obtuse oversight didn’t crush my credibility or ruin my rapport.
I do have class periods when my bungling builds, corrupting my confidence, crushing my composure and breeding bigger blunders. Out of witticisms and sensing my class is increasingly irritated, I have to make an on-the-fly change in order to preserve any pretense of productivity. Getting students to allow me a “do over” on a long problem or explanation isn’t always possible. I’ve blown it and I have to get back on track.
Some primal proclivity for persistence compels me to complete my current calulation. I want to prove that I really can “do this”. An inner voice says, “I just made a little mistake and I can find it and everything’s fine.” Clearly, I have an inner idiot.
The best way to handle such situations is to switch gears. Promise to have a better example next time and go on to a new topic. Alternatively, break students into groups and give an activity that reinforces the things you didn’t screw up. If the students leave with the botched explanation or problem fresh in their minds, they won’t remember what you talked about before that. Giving them a short problem set over the concepts you did explain will make those concepts, rather than your misguided machinations, the most memorable part of class.
We all strive to be slick speakers, effusing efficient, effortless explanations. However, students need that about as much as I need another apt alliteration. It’s fine for them to see how an educated person solves problems and reasons through a situation. It’s also good for them to see you keep your cool when class isn’t going smoothly. Ideally, teachers would be able to demonstrate the reasoning and problem solving process without making mistakes. In reality, there are two kinds of teachers. Some know their subject so thoroughly they fly flawlessly through facts, ignoring the insights that invite information integration. The rest are those of us who have learned to compensate for detail deficiency by cultivating critical capabilities. Since most students have average aptitude, they need to learn the same survival strategies that sustain me. Remember that next time you’re blundering at the board, ruing a ruined recitation.