Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” When I was a child in elementary school, I used to hide under my desk whenever the teacher asked a question. I was terrified that I would be called upon and convinced that I would be mortified when of course, I wouldn’t know the answer. I hid out for years like this. Occasionally, I would be discovered and asked to respond to a question. All I can remember is leaving my body, mumbling something and trying to get back under cover as soon as possible.
I have no understanding of why I was so afraid of making a mistake. I suppose it can go back to this persona that my parents created for me as being smart and responsible and perfect. Maybe it was about not letting them down, but the truth be told, how could I let them down if they never really saw who I was?
I suppose it really doesn’t matter why this happened.
The first time I stood up in front of a group was in 1968 when I faced my class of 32 eleven and twelve year old 6th graders at PS 116 in Brooklyn, New York. And once again I was terrified. Here I was, 21 years old, straight from the suburbs of Queens facing a group of African American, Puerto Rican and a smattering of white kids in a red brick building built in 1898 located in one of the poorest sections of the city. Did I tell you that my father had actually driven me to the school just before it opened for the school year ( and unbeknownst to me ) planned to meet the principal, Mr. Kash and to elicit a commitment from him to watch out for me while I was there…..Mr. Kash did agree.
But it wasn’t necessary.
From the moment I stepped in front of that classroom, terrified, sleep deprived (for most of my teaching career, I rarely slept the night before the opening of school) and wearing the dress that I had bought for this most audacious moment in my life, something began to shift for me. I didn’t know it at first, but I realize now, that by looking at my beautiful, hopeful, enthusiastic, and mostly underachieving (that’s test scores) students, I was looking at myself. And that was especially true of Julio. Mr. Kash had warned me about Julio. Well, in actuality, he warned every brand new teacher and staff member about Julio; everyone else knew him. He was the major behavior problem of PS 116. It seemed, nobody wanted him in their class. And while you could say that Julio’s reputation preceded him, the sad fact was that nobody knew this child nor took the time to get to know him. He was viewed as one big mistake, screwing up left and right. I can only imagine how Julio felt about himself. But we had a couple of things in common. I felt like one big mistake about to happen and no one had really taken the time to see me either.
I have come to believe that we teach most what we need to learn. It doesn’t matter what your profession or hobby or avocation, we seek out that which will help us better understand and know who we are. By being a classroom teacher, I morphed into being a fierce advocate for my students to be the best they could be; to take chances and make lots of mistakes as long as these errors became tools for reflection and change and growth and momentum to move forward and not become dead ends or unfulfilled dreams. I encouraged them to ask questions, especially if they didn’t understand something. “The only stupid question,” I said, “is the one not asked.” And I meant it.
I know now that whatever I was doing for my students, I was doing for myself. When I stood next to a student who was required to give an oral report in front of the class, that was me I had my arm around, saying, “Of course you can do it. I’m proud of you.” As they did it, so did I. When we did art projects, I threw away anything with lines on it (like coloring books) and encouraged imagination, creative expression and individuality. While I think of myself as someone who likes to think out of the box, for my students, there would be no box………”take a chance,” I said to them and to myself.
Learning, creativity and life are risky. Often times it requires stepping out of our comfort zone and taking chances. Trying new things and doing things differently opens us up to, yes, the risk of making mistakes. It also opens us up to our greatest potential.
I have come to appreciate the value of making mistakes as wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. I thank my hundreds and hundreds of students for showing me how with a little support and encouragement, we can become our best selves. Mistakes are valuable teachers and opportunities to see and do things differently. No one is ever a mistake….we make mistakes, only. And one more thing……...There is no such thing as perfection. Mistakes are as natural as sunshine and air……..
By Roberta Teller