“To Err is Human”
Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Regardless of who said it, the statement is true: human beings make mistakes. We are not perfect. And to recognize when we have made a mistake and to forgive ourselves that mistake and move on, we open up a wealth of opportunity for personal growth. If, on the other hand, we insist that we are correct even when we know we’re wrong, we commit ourselves to an erroneous path that can have negative consequences, not only for us, but for others that the mistake affects. Our denial of our mistake is tantamount to a lie; we lie to ourselves and to others, and that lie can cause a domino effect.
Teachers’ Mistakes in the Classroom
In the world of education, it is particularly important that teachers own their mistakes, especially if it pertains to the students they are teaching. If a teacher has made a mistake in the classroom context that directly affects his or her students, the teacher, upon recognizing the mistake, should immediately admit to that mistake, apologize for the error, and act to rectify the mistake.
Why a Teacher Should Apologize for a Mistake
Part of a teacher’s job is not only to provide students with the technical tools to make it through the physical aspect of life (i.e. reading, writing, arithmetic, and any other pertinent subjects), but also, whenever possible, to help the students develop into the best people they can be. To do this, the teacher must also be the best human being that he or she possibly can be. The ability to admit, accept, and either correct mistakes if possible or to move on from them and not repeat them promotes a student’s ability to learn and to excel.
When a teacher admits to a mistake, apologizes for it, and makes an effort to find a solution to rectify the mistake, that teacher is sending the students a message. The message is that it is okay to make mistakes, accept and admit to them with grace, and move on to either forgive ourselves for our mistakes or, when possible, to become problem solvers and find solutions to the consequences our mistakes have caused. The message is that no matter how embarrassing or uncomfortable it is to admit that we are wrong, when we make a mistake, we need to put the pride away. When a teacher does this, he or she shows their humanity; that it is okay to be wrong sometimes. When a teacher shows that he or she is human, it sets an example by which a student can learn integrity, understanding, empathy, and compassion. These traits are important in a well-rounded, simply good, human being.
Consequences of Teachers Not Admitting Classroom Mistakes
If a teacher makes a mistake in the classroom setting and refuses to admit to it, he or she disrespects the students and the learning institution. A teacher’s inability to able to admit, apologize for, and at least attempt to rectify the mistake may cause students’ lack of respect and distrust for that teacher. It can cause students’ confusion, and can also send a message to a student that when the student is wrong, he can insist that he is right and get away with the mistake, even though this isn’t always the case.
If the mistake is a technical error regarding grades or information covered on exams, this can be very damaging and can directly cause poor test results or failure of students, even excellent students. Technical errors involving grades can also be damaging in that a student in trouble may slip through the cracks and not actually learn the necessary material if the student is mistakenly given higher grades than he or she should be given.
For example, take an episode of the television series Felicity, a drama about young adults making their way through the college world of New York University. Felicity’s boyfriend, Ben, has a pre-med class with a hard-nosed, unbending professor. The professor tells his class specifically that questions pertaining to a certain category will not be asked on a major exam. Ben and his classmate do not study the information, but questions pertaining to the category do appear on the test. As a result, Ben and his friend receive poor grades on the exam. When they confront the professor, however, he refuses to admit to his mistake and will not change the grades. Ben’s friend, terrified of his parents’ reaction to his failure, turns to alcohol to numb his devastation. As a result, he ends up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning and nearly dies. When Ben tells the professor what happened, the professor realizes that his failure to admit his mistake could have cost a student his life. He relents and passes both Ben and his friend.
But what would have happened if the student had died? The professor would have had this on his conscience the rest of his life. His one mistake spawned another: the refusal to admit the original mistake.
This may be an extreme example of how a teacher’s mistake can impact a student’s life; but who is to say that these things don’t happen? And it is a great example of how refusal to admit a mistake can escalate and have dire consequences.
A teacher should not hide their classroom-related mistakes. As a human being in charge of the growth and development of young minds, the teacher must bring integrity into play.
As soon as a teacher discovers that he or she has made a mistake, the teacher should either meet one-on-one with the student the mistake has affected, explain the mistake, apologize, and then discuss what can be done to rectify the mistake and help the student. If the mistake affects the whole class, the teacher should immediately let the class know that he or she has made a mistake, apologize, and provide a solution that will remedy the mistake.
No student should suffer for a teacher’s mistake. No teacher should have to suffer because they wouldn’t admit having made a mistake. A teacher should teach by example and admit to and apologize for mistakes they make in the classroom.