The Generosity and Power of Public Mistakes

I have spent a lot of my life trying to be perfect.

Or trying to have others see me as perfect.


When I was teaching a class, I really, really felt that way.

If I made a mistake I certainly didn’t want my students to know about it.

I got defensive if one of the bright ones tripped me up on something.

When I took up Aikido as a regular practice I became a student again.


I saw the world through the eyes of a beginner.

I felt the confusion and clumsiness of a newcomer.

I looked at the senior students (sempai) in awe.


Their seeming perfection made me feel like I was alone.

I was the only one who wasn’t “getting it”.

And then it happened.

During the demonstration of a technique, one of the sempai, working with our teacher, struggled with the move and made a mistake.

Immediately, the spell was broken. I was not alone. Other folks were finding this challenging, too.

And at that moment, I began to see the generosity and power of public mistakes.


They let us know that we are not alone.

That learning is sometimes difficult.

They give us confirmation that mistakes are a part of learning, a part of being human.


As teachers, letting students see our mistakes is an important part of their learning.

When we struggle, they must see us struggle.

They need to see us pick ourselves up and continue our efforts.


Our persistence shows them that mistakes don’t stop us.

It is all part of the journey.

It’s not always neat and clean.

But it is always exciting and rewarding.


As teachers, we must have the courage, to model authentic learning.

And the courage to be our imperfect selves.

It is through this generosity that we let them know that learning and mistakes go hand and hand.

That having flaws is a part of being human.

And even teachers make mistakes.



10 thoughts on “The Generosity and Power of Public Mistakes

  1. In my class we applaud mistakes. I mean, literally, stop and give a round of applause. In the beginning of the year my students think I’m crazy for doing this, but as time goes by they begin to understand. I explain that the best learning comes from the mistakes we make and that we’ll never get anywhere pretending to be perfect. Of course I have to live what I teach. When my students catch me making a mistake, they are overjoyed to give me a round of applause. I enjoy their enthusiasm in catching me and it’s always nice to get a round of applause every now and then.

    This is a great post-thanks!

  2. I can really appreciate your past feelings of complete failure when exposed by a simple mistake. I, too, am a perfectionist who struggles daily with others seeing my flaws. It seems that it is different with kids, at least for me. I am able to relate a mistake with correcting and learning for the next time. This has been especially important when teaching the arduous task of learning keyboarding. In our district, students are required to learn keyboarding beginning in 3rd grade. Many of the students are just crushed to see the red line indicating an error in their typing. Some of them shut down completely and it is tough to get them motivated to try again. That’s when I sit down at the computer and show them all the mistakes that I make and how I am able to type quickly allowing myself to ignore the errors and correct them after the fact. We talk about the “learn from our mistakes” belief from age old teaching and soon they are back at it again.

    Thanks for the encouraging words!


  3. Heidi;
    The post you reference in you comments is truly wonderful. I encourage folks to read it.

    It’s interesting, that it all begins with loving and forgiving ourselves. Once we do that, it’s easy to be who we are…mistakes and all.

    We generally don’t have these types of ‘reflective’ conversations in our Professional Development for teachers. Yet, this is exactly the part of teaching that has a direct impact on how effective we are with students.

    If we are not at ease with ourselves. If we are ashamed of ourselves, or angry at ourselves…it comes across in our teaching.


  4. Valerie,
    I love that the kids applaud mistakes. I have to admit, that my conditioned tendency…I’ve been this way most of my life, is to hate to make mistakes.

    As I said in the post, I get the concept intellectually; but I still find it hard to live it when it actually happens to me.


  5. Jennifer,
    Having given and received ‘red lined’ papers, I see how devastating they can be.

    I wonder if there is a better way?

    I know in Aikido my teacher rarely says anything negative.

    When he corrects something he’ll say, “let me see you do that again….hmmm”

    Then he’ll give some instruction,”try moving your foot this way”

    Then he’ll say, “now try it again”

    He’ll watch me do it again and his reaction can range from,

    “That’s more better’er”

    “Hmm, keep practicing, needs more work”

    thanks for sharing and thanks for encouraging your students to keep trying.


  6. As a new teacher, it took me a while to get used to being able to make mistakes in front of my class. They are fine with it, and only give me a moderate amount of guff, as long as I don’t try to cover the fact that I made a mistake. I just have to move on and tell them that I will get back to them with the correct answer or process. No matter what level of student you deal with, the majority of them call tell when you are backtracking. Be straight up with them and they will respect you for it.

  7. David,
    Isn’t interesting that students have such a powerful BS detector?
    I like to call it a clear vision of what is really going on.

    Adults have it too; but we don’t notice it as much. We tend to listen to the words and miss the non-verbal part of the message.


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