Even Teachers Fail: How to Embrace Mistakes as an Educator

embrace mistakes as an educator
(Image credit: iStock/Darren Baker)

Educators understand that failing is a huge part of the learning process. This is especially true for my fellow STEAM and robotics educators, whose students are often asked to try something, fail, try again, and eventually succeed. We call this “meaningful failure,” and it is one of the best ways for students to build resilience and confidence. Once they succeed, they feel confident in their ability as a learner. 

That all being said, it is much easier for an educator to encourage their students to embrace failure than it is for the teacher to embrace failure. 

The recent school closures provided teachers the opportunity to experience firsthand what it means to fail, learn from that failure, and build confidence to improve. 

As a former technology coordinator at a school, I have seen teachers hesitate to use new technology in the classroom for fear of making a mistake. With distance learning, however, educators can no longer avoid using technology, and many are now embracing it. 

I am impressed with how teachers have gone all in on learning and using technology needed to conduct the best distance learning for their students. Sometimes it does not work – maybe the connection isn’t great, or their favorite lesson doesn’t translate well – yet teachers are still embracing technology, learning from mistakes, and finding the confidence and resiliency within themselves to keep going. 

While this school year has come to an end, we may still be doing distance learning next year. For educators who are struggling, here are my tips on how to embrace failure while doing distance learning: 

Embrace new learning techniques 

Many parents, students, and educators think everything must be perfect the first time – even though we know that is not realistic. I teach robotics for grades 1 through 6 and my students use LEGO Education solutions to build and code their creations, which provides hands-on opportunities and encourages students to learn by doing and learn through their mistakes. When a student asks me how to get an “A” in my class, I tell them they must fail because that’s the way they will learn how to try again and build in a different, new and better way the next time.  

This same lesson can be applied to educators who are distance teaching for the first time. Part of learning is the doing, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed focusing on what students “should do.” 

Consider hopping on whatever LMS you’re using, reviewing the latest projects students are working on, and simply sending feedback to students such as, “What can you do to make it better?” And then, turn to yourself, and ask the same question. 

Whenever possible, I encourage teachers to push ourselves to try innovative lesson plans and learning techniques to help students continue to learn while at home. 

Incorporate learning through play 

A silver lining with distance learning that I am seeing is a lot more play and discovery happening among students. As a robotics teacher, I have seen the amazing benefits of learning through play in my classroom, and distance learning is a great time for educators to try bring playful learning into their teaching as well. 

For example, a colleague who is a science teacher came up with the creative idea to do a simulated mission to the moon. His students meet via Zoom as though they are all astronauts trying to get to the moon. They are learning history, engineering, and problem-solving in a hands-on and playful way that he wouldn’t typically do in his classroom. His students are benefiting from this new way of learning, and he’ll likely weave it into his teaching once back in a physical classroom. 

I encourage all educators to embrace this time to find ways to be creative and playful and think about how to bring that back into the classroom. 

Be flexible

There is no playbook for how we should continue teaching robotics during a pandemic, and certainly no right or wrong way of doing things. Even in “normal” times, we know that all children are different (as are adults). One student could be thriving during remote learning, while another is struggling to keep up. 

Same with teachers – one of your colleagues could be loving all the screen time and video calls, while you might be still trying to figure how to translate your classroom assignments online. 

Now more than ever, we need to be flexible with students and ourselves. For example, while I normally recommend limiting screen time, I am now embracing it. Special circumstances call for special exceptions. Remember to adapt and be flexible, and you will make it through.  

Take on the role of facilitator

After being in the classroom as many years as I have, I know things will go wrong. The best thing is that students either do not know that it’s going wrong (so don’t worry about impressing them), or are so resilient that regardless of what happens, they will come back more ready to learn than ever. 

In a ‘normal’ classroom, I would be using robotics kits and hands-on activities; while at home, I am still having kids continue to get hands-on, but work on basic skills such as drawing to get better at conveying an idea in a picture, or building challenges in which students pick what they get to work on and create projects with whatever materials they have available at home. 

It can be uncomfortable for some, but I encourage teachers to embrace the role of facilitator rather than leader, and allowing kids more opportunities to fail while making sure communication is open for questions. 

Now is the perfect time to help your students learn resiliency and problem-solving, and an even better time to finetune these skills for yourself as an educator. 

Bruce Nelson is a Robotics & Design teacher at Indian Creek Elementary and LEGO Education Master Educator