When we make mistakes in our personal or professional lives, we might replay that moment over and over in our minds, cursing ourselves that we didn’t do something different to avoid the embarrassment and negative feeling. Early career teachers feel this kind of agony most keenly, we believe. It’s a natural response but can also be disruptive, so it’s best to try and mitigate its effects as best you can. In a previous article, we shared eight essential tips for ECTs that help them to survive and thrive in their first year out of training. The third of those pointers were to treat all difficulties you encounter as learning opportunities.

Our second pointer was about being mentally prepared to make mistakes. The third piece of advice follows on naturally from that about how to respond and act when the mistakes inevitably happen. When you’re mentally prepared, framing the mistake as a learning opportunity becomes easier.

What we say “difficulties,” what are we referring to?

For an ECT, the list of potential difficulties knows no bounds. From your own misunderstanding and misinterpretation of your new school’s rules to failing to plan enough activities for a lesson, or even to forget about one of your new break time duties, there’s always something that can go wrong and send you into a guilty stupor. When we say “difficulties,” we mean anything and everything that will go wrong for you in your ECT years. Every single problem is your very own teachable moment.

Shouldn’t I just try to forget about my mistakes and try to move on?

If by “move on”, you mean forget about that and put it out of your mind forever, then that would be a huge mistake in itself. By actively trying to learn from it, you empower yourself while simultaneously removing the negative power the mistake has on your state of mind. Here’s a basic three-step process to getting started in learning from mistakes:

Step 1: Embrace the mistake; own it, and face it head-on

The first thing is to identify and affirm what the mistake was and own it as yours. Only by doing this can you be clear in your head about moving on to the next steps. Some people try to do mental gymnastics around their mistakes to turn them into someone else’s problem. This brings no benefit to anyone.

Step 2: Stay either neutral or positive

To allow too much negativity creates a vicious cycle of self-torture that will only lead to further problems down the road. Either try to remain neutral and objective about what went wrong or keep a positive attitude - tell it as a funny story to friends, for example, and remember that to 'err' is human!

Step 3: Reflect

Teachers are always asking students to reflect on their work. We give them questionnaires about how they feel they’ve performed this term and what they will try to do better in the future. We should, of course, apply those same standards to ourselves. Look at the problem dispassionately, and make notes on what went wrong and how to avoid it happening again.

Through this simple process, you cut out the negative power of the mistake and make it an empowering experience from which you’ll grow.

Is there any other benefit to this other than you just feeling a bit better?

There are numerous other benefits to be gained from this constructive approach to dealing with our mistakes. The first step about owning and embracing errors sends a strong message of maturity and responsibility to your mentor and fellow colleagues. We’re not saying you should deliberately get things wrong and then own up, but when things do go awry, having the wisdom and level-headedness to be able to admit your mistake is an admirable thing.

There is also a cumulative effect. If you repeat this process, each difficulty you face becomes easier to deal with, and you gain an increasing amount of benefit from it. This means you have to be patient with yourself and this process. If you establish a routine of reflection and make it a natural habit, then any trouble you run into will be invaluable for the wisdom and experience it will confer on you.

Equally, ignoring mistakes or not trying to find the lesson in them can accumulate as a harmful effect psychologically. As a load of your difficulties at work piles up, you can easily burn out or, even worse, have some kind of breakdown. Try to summon the courage and determination to deal with each problem positively as it comes your way.

To conclude:

As an early careers teacher, you are joining a community of educators. You should know better than anyone that learning opportunities are ubiquitous and come in many shapes and forms. You don’t have to be enrolled in any class to be educating yourself. Practice what you preach, and make all of your difficulties into invaluable learning opportunities.