Think back to your last big mistake. If you’re like most of us, “grateful” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Mistakes are part of learning. How do we address our own mistakes and model our responses? How do we create a mistakes-welcoming classroom?
In her new book, Risk. Fail. Rise. A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Mistakes, author Colleen Cruz invites us to be more aware of the mistakes we make so we can learn to avoid the unnecessary ones and learn how to respond to useful ones. In turn this will help our classrooms be a place of positive risk-taking and productive failure for all students.
We started our conversation with Colleen by asking how she approaches such a daunting topic as our mistakes…
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Colleen: I came up with the idea for the book because I was in my work at the Reading and Writing Project. We do these Saturday reunions where we do these free days of workshops for teachers. And one of the workshops that I did that I sort of did out of a feeling of frustration that I think a lot of educators were feeling at the time, just we are just doing it all wrong. So I did this workshop called it's all our fault, which was actually the working title of this book. It's All Our Fault: 10 mistakes that we're making today that we can stop doing tomorrow. And the landslide of teachers who came to that workshop shocked me. It was just really well received and the conversations that I had coming after it made me realize that this is a conversation we don't spend a lot of time having.
There's a lot of outsiders who talk about the mistakes that we make, but it usually comes from an attack phase, not an insight and an understanding of why and how these mistakes are made. And I just started digging into my own mistakes as an educator and as a human, quite frankly, and started to wonder... If you know me, you know I'm a research person. I started just reading a lot of research and realizing there's a whole body of research on mistakes that I was completely unaware of as an educator and sort of surprised me that I had never been formally instructed into mistake making. I had known about growth mindset, but that's not the same exactly. They're in similar spheres.
So as I dug into it from my own personal curiosity, I just discovered that there was so much to be said and so much to explore in terms of mistakes in education and not just studying the mistakes that students make, which I think most of us as educators are hyper aware of, but rather the mistakes that we make as educators and as school systems make. And that just became a five year odyssey of living in the land of mistakes, which is a weird place for those who love me and are in my life to be in, because I'm constantly analyzing now. But I felt like as much as teaching and learning has mistakes as part of it, I hadn't seen much discussion or study purely on mistakes.
Brett: You take that thinking right into calling for a need for mistakes welcoming classroom culture. What does that look like?
Colleen: Well, I would say that in the main, it's not what it currently looks like. I would say that if I were to interview 1000 teachers, 1000 teachers would say that they are a classroom where it's safe and welcoming to mistakes. But when we scratch beneath the surface, not really. We have these entire structures and systems, I don't think put together by individual teachers, although that is true, that we do put in systems that block mistakes. But if you just look at something simple like grading, for example. Grading to me is the largest obstacle to a mistake welcoming culture. We grade people on their ability to meet standards of excellence, and you cannot be excellent without making mistakes, but at the same time, the person who gets the highest grade is the person who makes the least mistakes. So there's a way in which we actually discourage kids in the learning process from making mistakes if they want to get the cookie, AKA the A or the four, or whatever the rubric is.
So to me, the mistakes welcoming culture is really about looking across all of your systems, all of your structures in your classroom and seeing if there are ways, usually unintentionally, that we're not making it possible or encouraging for kids to make mistakes, or even ourselves to make mistakes. When you think of when teachers are observed, it's usually for evaluation. Rarely are teachers observed to just see what they're up to or to give them compliments. So to me, a mistakes welcoming school, a mistakes welcoming classroom looks at all of the structures, all of the systems, everything from the materials that you use to the language that you use. And you have to ask yourself, is this a place where risk is expected and encouraged? I'm absolutely a fan of Maxine Greene's work, who said, "We can't promise kids safe classrooms, but we can create classrooms that encourage risk." And I think that that's really what I'm after there.
Brett: One of the beautiful things about how you've put the book together is, as you help us think through each of these sections, you've got very practical examples. You've got scenarios that you've laid out, and then you're thinking with those scenarios and it's tremendously helpful to have that juxtaposed to some of the thinking that you've laid out as well. In the first part of the book in essay one, you write about how not all mistakes are created equal. You referenced the work of Eduardo Briceno's four types of mistakes. Could you talk a little bit about what those four types are?
Colleen: Yeah. Briceno writes a lot about, what he's most known for is the performance zone and the learning zone. And yet, when I was studying his work, I found this essay that he wrote about the four types of mistakes and this idea that not all mistakes are equally awesome and wonderful to make. Teachers will always say, "Oh, all mistakes are great," but that's not actually true. Like nobody wants a brain surgeon to, whoops, drop their scalpel. Not all mistakes are great. And I think it's important for us as educators to acknowledge that we should avoid mistakes that we can avoid, and we should embrace mistakes and go for mistakes that are helpful.
So Briceno talks about different types of mistakes, one being the sloppy mistake, which is the, I left my coffee on the counter on my way to work kind of mistake. Not a big deal. It's not going to ruin anybody. I mean, it might ruin your day, but it's not going to hurt anybody other than maybe you'll have a headache by noon. That's a sloppy mistake and we make those all the time. Those are the mistakes we tend to forget almost as soon as we make them. I think that they aren't things that we need to spend a whole lot of time worrying about. But he does talk about the good mistakes and he breaks up the good mistakes into how much you learn from them.
So there's what he calls the aha mistake, which is the kind of mistake where you're doing something and you didn't even realize what you didn't know until you made the mistake. So it's in the mistake that you realize something. So the example I give in the book is when you're baking and you accidentally put a cup of salt into something instead of a cup of sugar. That's when you realize just how much sugar and salt look alike. I mean, you consciously know that, but you don't realize it until you make this mistake. And that's a mistake where it's unplanned, you're doing something else entirely and you make this realization.
Then there's the stretch mistake. The stretch mistake is the mistake that we want to make, that kids want to make, that humans totally want to make. These are the mistakes, the sexy mistakes, the mistakes that you're like, "Yes," practice makes perfect kind of mistakes. And that's when you're taking a risk and you know you're taking our risk. The first time you ride a bike. The first time you make a speech on stage. The first time you decide to write a book about a topic that you've never written before, about mistakes. It's a stretch. And as you're stretching, you make mistakes, but you're expecting it. You know what's going to happen and in that, you learn your limits and you learn certain skills.
But the worst kind of mistake are the high stakes mistakes. So those are the surgical mistakes. Those are the surgeon with the scalpel and it's when somebody is doing something that is high risk and could cause great damage if you make a mistake. We want to avoid those mistakes. We want to avoid the sloppy ones too, but we really want to avoid the high stakes mistakes. And I think for teachers, we are often in the land of risk in terms of high stakes mistakes. And our kids often feel that the mistakes that they are making as learners are in the high stakes mistake world. And they shouldn't. They should be more experiencing the aha and stretch mistakes.
And I think all people, but particularly educators, because our business is learning... I think knowing and being able to identify mistakes and which mistakes you can just let roll off of your back and which mistakes you really should avoid and which mistakes you should run towards with open arms, I think it really helps you to not put them all in the same bucket.
Brett: And sort of related to that, in this same section of the book, you note the significance of intent and impact, especially on students. On students, rather, I should say, and especially in anti-racist work. Could you expand a little bit more about the significance and the importance of intent and impact and how you write about how we can best model taking responsibility?
Colleen: Yeah, I first learns the language and developed an understanding about anti-racist work and intent and impact from my colleagues who focus on anti-racism related to anti-blackness in particular. As light skin Latina, I'm constantly thinking about where my privilege lies and thinking about how there's a way that we can give ourselves a pass because we didn't intend to do something. And I think that's true in all of our lives, in our relationships with our friends and our loved ones and our students. We do something, we mess up and then we feel bad about it, and we find ourselves saying, "I didn't mean to." But that becomes exponentially more troublesome when it comes to acts of racism. I think very few people, I think even probably virulent racists would struggle to say they are actively racist. I think somebody who is a Klans person would struggle to say that they're racist. They would say that they believe in and they're proud of their whiteness or something like that.
And it's an interesting note that even virulent racist will not own their intention. They will say, "I didn't mean to." Even when they're doing something horrific. They'll say that they were meaning to do something really great. And that's why separating out intent and impact is so, so key when it comes to all things. We mispronounce a child's name, for example, and certainly people mispronounce my name all the time. And I think when people were like, "Well, I didn't mean to." I never think anybody intentionally tried to mispronounce my name. But when people do that and then they go into a big, long spiel about their intention and not checking in on the victim of that, I think that that compounds the mistake with interest.
And so thinking about when all of us... We swim in the waters of racism, when we are making mistakes, and we will, that are racist we need to stop and we need to not focus on our purpose that we did not meet. But rather, who are the victims? Who are the people that we harmed and what might they be feeling? And concentrate on that. And it's an interesting mindset for yourself to be thinking about... Just assume that unless you're pure evil, unless you're like spawn of Satan, you did not mean to do it. And so that should be a forgone conclusion. That instead, you have to ask yourself, "What might this person be feeling?" If you're not sure, you could just ask them. But just like, "I am really looking at what I just said or what I just did and how that affected the person."
And I think it's really important for kids to see us modeling the intent versus impact piece, because I think from a very young age, American culture in particular has a focus on apologizing and just really deep regret. And, "I'm so sorry." Almost to the point we reflectively want kids to say, "I'm sorry." And with my own two children, I have two children who are elementary school age, one of the things that my wife and I have taught them from an early age is, "Yes, apologize, but then follow it up with, 'And how can I make that better?' That's what you have to say." So if you punch your brother as he's walking by, which may or may not have happened this morning, and he responds, you say, "Oh, I'm sorry, how can I make that better?" Because the focus really shouldn't be on you, the person who made the mistake, it should be on the person who was impacted by the mistake.
Brett: And you have some really good examples in the book on that section about checking in with the victim of... You have a very personal example that you write about, something that you did. And there's a lot of great scenarios and examples right there that people can read more about in that. In that same section, you call our attention to the power dynamic between teacher and student when thinking about impact. Why is it so important for us to really have more awareness there in that power dynamic?
Colleen: Yeah. So the power dynamic, a teacher's carrying the blame of all of society's ills and yet, at the same time, being treated very much like second class citizens, makes it sometimes feel like teachers are powerless. They often feel like the families have the power or the child has the power. When we spend enough time in teacher's lounges before the pandemic... And it's real. We don't have the kind of power in society that we should, considering the position that educators hold in terms of forming our citizens. There isn't as much respect for teachers as should be. And so that feeling of powerlessness and very much being pawns in the system. Teachers rarely have any say over their budget, rarely have any say over their standards. And many school districts don't even have a say over their curriculum or even their schedule.
So in many ways, teachers are in fact powerless. Except in one really crucial area, and that is with our students. And that for many, many students and their families, we are the most powerful figure in their lives. And for many of them, we are their most direct contact to government agencies. For some families, we're their only contact with any government agency, for public school teachers, on a regular basis. And for kids, sometimes the teacher even outranks whoever their caregiver is, their parent or their grandparent, or whoever's caring for them, in terms of power. And I think that we need to acknowledge that because power carries great responsibility and also means that some of the choices that we make in terms of how we respond to mistakes are exponentially larger. When we think of ourselves, when our colleague makes a comment to us that's critical, it does not carry the same weight as when our administrator does.
And so for our students that we serve, there is very much that dynamic of when we criticize them, it has power for both good or bad. The criticism can build them up and make them grow, or it can shrink them down in a way that their friend on the school yard making that same comment wouldn't have. And I think teachers, understandably, when you look at the systems of power, don't always own or feel comfortable with the fact that we are powerful. Even if we only acknowledge that we're powerful within the sphere of influence of our classrooms.
We have a tremendous amount of power in our students' lives. And all of us are aware that one great teacher, one great interaction with a teacher in your life can make or break your whole academic and possibly career. But the reverse is also true. And you can have somebody who makes a flippant comment and uses their power in a way that is demeaning or damaging. And it could completely derail a student who would otherwise be successful. And I do think it's easy for us to feel powerless for a lot of really good reasons, but I think it's also important for us to name that power that we do have.
Brett: You noted a second ago just how much teachers are shouldering right now, especially as we record this in a continued remote teaching scenario because of the pandemic. You write about in section three of the book, the hero teacher and the martyrs. They're often described as taking care of their students before taking care of themselves. And you write that while that is noble that this isn't good for instruction. Why?
Colleen: This is a really hard one because I think a lot of educators call what we do a calling, a vocation, maybe something spiritual. And I think, I was raised in a religious tradition. There's a feeling of when you are called to do something, you want to sacrifice everything in order to do it. And I think we have these romantic notions of people who give up everything for students. And you just think of like name three movies you know that star teachers. They almost always show the teacher as a self-sacrificing character, and that's where so many, almost like Peace Corps-style teaching programs come from, is this savior complex that we have. And that is fine for like a quick fix, but we know that the best teachers and the students who are served by them usually have teachers who are in their careers for a long time.
And you can't last having that sort of no sleep, no food, no social life for more than a couple of years. And we are seeing teachers just leaving, and they were leaving before. We were hitting a teaching shortage before. And now in the pandemic, I feel like just apocryphally, I don't know because I haven't seen the numbers, but I know from my friends that I know people who are leaving the profession right now who are amazing teachers, and it's in large part because they are pushing too hard. They are trying to do too much. And ultimately, they're wearing themselves out.
And secondarily, that's like, sort of like the big picture. The big picture is this notion of when we wear ourselves out, we become the husk of the great educator we once were, and it doesn't do the kids any good. It doesn't do us any good. But secondarily, on a day-to-day level, when we're tired, when we're hungry, when we're distracted by current events, we can't help but make mistakes. Like the best way to not make a mistake is to fully focus on the moment and be mindful and just be really in the moment. And that's very hard to do if your basic needs are not met, if your emotional needs are not met. And I think healer heal thyself. I'm really bad about this. Like I know that if I point to the last mistake I made and I traced back to my self-care, almost always my mistakes go back to a lack of self-care, that I didn't get enough sleep or I didn't remember to eat or I didn't take that time to get on the phone with that friend.
And so I think that it feels counter-intuitive, but the more you care for yourself, the more you can care for your children. And that as romantic as it is to imagine a teacher like living in the one room school house, sleeping on the ground, just to teach her seven children by the fireplace, like this image that we have, it's really sweet and everything, but like how high a quality of that education is it? And so I think, yeah, I think all of us have ... I guess I'm talking to the psychology of us as educators that we, in order to best serve our students, we really do need to take care of ourselves. If we really don't want to screw it up, and they have this one chance at childhood, we do have to take care of ourselves.
Brett: You've got some great advice in the section, specifically, around setting boundaries, and in some of the self-care that you teach us and you, in particularly, have the self care self assessment tool. If you could sort of explain a little bit about the self assessment tool because I actually spent a lot of time reading that myself, and I was, I enjoyed that.
Colleen: How'd you do?
Brett: Okay. Lot to learn.
Colleen: It's kind of embarrassing, the self assessment tool, because the way I came up with the tool is a little personal, but I basically went back and looked at some of my mistakes that I wish I could take back. I regret the impact that they had. And when I trace them back, they were like the silliest things. Like I had a toothache, and so I was annoyed by it, and I should have gone to the dentist, and I don't know why I thought I would get a cookie for not going to the dentist. Like I don't know like who I was serving, but yeah. It's just a way of looking at all the corners of your life. There's the obvious eating and sleeping, which I think is really pathetic that that has to be a thing that's on a checklist, but like I have more than once been like, yeah, when's the last time I've slept for more than five hours?
But there's also things like social life and joy and pleasure. And I think that we do need to make room for those things in our lives. And I do think that the other aspect of that checklist is also our kids are watching us, and we can tell them all we want that they need to eat healthy and sleep well and spend time with friends and stuff, but if they know we don't do that, we're their biggest hero, and that's who they're going to look to, so we're perpetuating this system of wearing these great people out. And so we need to do it to take care of ourselves, and we need to do it to take care of our students, and we also need to do it to model it for our students.
Brett: It feels like this relates really closely to self care. You write about fear, and you say it makes us vulnerable to mistakes. How can we be more aware of our fear so that it doesn't take over our teaching?
Colleen: Yeah. I mean, aren't we like ... This year, it just feels like it's all about fear. I think that fear is a huge driver of mistakes. We frequently decide to do or not do something based on fear. If you look at the recent elections and who people voted for or chose not to vote for, or like a former student of mine who I'm friends with on social media commented that he just opted out of voting for the president. He did all the rest, but he didn't vote for the president, and it all stems from fear. And I think as a society, we don't like to talk about fear. I think people think of fear as a sign of weakness. And I think anything that we don't talk about becomes fodder for mistake making. Like if we don't willingly discuss fears big and small, they get power over us.
And so if I'm afraid of appearing stupid in front of other people, then I'm going to pretend to know things I don't know, and then consequently teach things that are perhaps wrong. Or if I'm afraid of losing control of my classroom, then I might overreact to a student's behavior as opposed to teaching into it. And so I think it's important to know what your personal fears and your personal triggers are, and not just in terms of teaching, although that's important. Like I know that one of the things that when I still was in the classroom was a fear of mine was a fear of kids losing control and just because I definitely was a project-based kind of teacher, and I'd worry that people would walk in and think it was chaos.
And so knowing that was important because I could anticipate what I would say. I would almost have lines in my back pocket that I could repeat when somebody would ask me, "What's your class doing? They're all over the place." But then there's also fears that are not classroom-based, that seep into your classroom like fear of humiliation or physical fear. I mean, I feel like the fears that we have as educators around school shootings, around pandemic, I mean, actual life and death fears that are a 100% real. There are just ways that those are going to lead us to make mistakes. They're going to lead us to say things that we would regret or to do things that we would regret.
And I think spending some time just reflecting on what your fears are, both professionally and just in your life, makes you understand when you find yourself avoiding something. Like, "I will avoid going down to my apartment basement room after dark, because I don't like what could be down there." I'm a big Stephen King fan and I know that. I know that I have a thing about monsters that aren't real. And I know that, and it's awesome that I have made it right now on a podcast. But at 2:00 in the morning, I will not go into the laundry room. And so knowing that means that I have to make plans for when I'm going to do my laundry if I need it done by a certain point.
So as an educator, thinking about what are the things that you are most afraid of personally and professionally. And then when you get close to those areas, rather than avoiding them, you can either edge into them or get the support you need to make them go away.
Brett: You also read about how classroom texts can be co-teachers in this work. How so?
Colleen: I think all texts that we bring into our classroom have multiple purposes. I think that there's the exquisite purpose of the texts that we bring and then there's also the implicit purpose. I think the brilliant minds who started disrupt texts talk a lot about this notion of how we are constantly giving messages to our students in the texts that we bring. And so when certain voices are heard and other voices are not, we are explicitly giving a message. And it's also true when we're thinking... It's true across everything, from race to class to gender. And it's also true around attitudes around mistakes. And if we're only sharing stories of triumph, if we're only sharing feel-good stories or success stories, we are also showing kids that the only ways that you can experience success in life is by triumph.
And I think it's important that when we look at the nonfiction texts that we bring, the biographies, the historical accounts, but also the fiction that we bring that not everything has a happy ending, not every mistake ends well, not every story ends at the resolution. I think that those are all really crucial. And I think, I mean, we look at our current events now, whether we're thinking about the elections or the pandemic or anything that's happening in your local news, I think it's really interesting to bring those into the classroom and not just study them for the resolution, but to study them in terms of mistakes along the way.
Brett: It's important to note that while the book is for K-12, it really is about the teachers. Can you talk a little bit about how this book is really about the mistakes we as teachers are making in our response to students?
Colleen: It's a misconception teachers have about this book is that this book is about kids, and it's actually about them. Which is not really a great selling point, but part of it is that. And then the other thing is that most of what happens with kids' mistakes is actually, it's our response to the mistakes that makes them either willing or unwilling to make them again. I think we often hand that off to the kid and say that their unwillingness to make mistakes is because of their not understanding growth mindset, as opposed to when you make a mistake, how does the person you're making the mistake in front of respond to it? Do they respond with grades? Do they respond with empathy? Do they respond with teaching or do they snap at you or dig into you?
Brett: We'll wrap up with this. I noted this earlier in our conversation that the book comes with a lot of lessons in the back of the book. Could you just talk us through some of the lessons? You've got a couple in there in particular on intent versus impact. So I just wondered if you could just walk us through some of those lessons.
Colleen: Yeah. So when I was piloting the book, I actually originally was thinking about just teaching about mistakes to students. And almost like a half and half, one half of the book would be about teachers and us learning about our own mistakes. And then the other half would be, how do we share this knowledge with students? And eventually it ended up being like, thinking about lessons. And so while the whole book has sections throughout it where I talk about how we would address these things with students, I have several lessons of the back and they're focused on different age groups. The book is K-12, so there's younger elementary grade and then upper elementary, middle school, high school lessons.
And so some of the things that I was thinking about was just, one of the first ones, which I think is so, so big is understanding the word mistake. That I do think part of our problem as a culture with mistakes is our language around them and the way we conflate mistake with sin. I'm sure there's a better word than sin, intentional wrongdoing. But a mistake is an unintentional thing. Whereas a sin or an intentional wrongdoing, you knew that you were going to do that. When you punch your brother in the face, that's not, "Whoops, my fist hit his nose." It's you actually meant to do that, that whole intention thing. Whereas a mistake, the intention is the thing.
And so teaching kids directly about what mistakes are opens up the classroom for that, how to study it. And then as we talked about earlier, there's this session on impact versus intent. And it does look different for little ones than it does for big guys, and you can get much deeper with that. But one of my favorite lessons is just the idea of collecting mistakes. I have a whole section on this idea of mistake boxes and mistake resumes, and almost like it's all about transparency. It's about teaching kids that putting things out on the table and discussing them is part of what makes something powerful.
And so it explicitly goes into how we can address those things. I do think it's important and I say this in the book, but I think it's important to mention that all of this, of course, requires is a practitioner who knows their students, because I do think knowing kids' experiences, knowing possible trauma that they might be experiencing. These are things you want to tread lightly and knowing your kids, it would be the first step before you jumped into them.
In addition to being the author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz is the author of several other titles for teachers, including Independent Writing and A Quick Guide to Helping Struggling Writers, as well as the author of the young adult novel Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award Finalist. Colleen was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Colleen presently supports schools, teachers and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant. Fine Colleen on Twitter @colleen_cruz.