Making Mistakes

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Tours - France - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - crash Yukiya Arashiro (Japan / Team Europcar) pictured during the 100th Tour de France 2013 stage-12 from FougËres to Tours - photo Pool/LE/Cor Vos © 2013


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Do teachers who make mistakes, become better teachers?

For the past 25 years, I’ve been teaching in the classroom in some capacity. What I mean by this, is now working as a deputy headteacher, I still teach, but not as much as I used to.

In this post, I offer the analogy of cycling and teaching and how practise makes for a better teacher. I wonder if I make more mistakes as an experienced teacher, or I am less likely to take risks in the classroom …

At the age of 18, I started practising teaching in my non-contact lessons as a sixth former, preparing my way ahead for an intense 4-years away from home. Moving 250 miles away from home to live, study and teach in South London to work in a variety of school settings, I now find myself twenty-five years later still doing what I set out to do. I may not teach as much as I used to – and I question if I am as good as I once consider myself to have been – during a time when I once taught 20 lessons a week for over a decade.

However, I’m still doing it and reflecting on how my mistakes have made me even better.

Riding a bicycle:

At about the same time all those years ago, roughly at the age of 15, I started to watch the Tour de France and have continued to do so every summer. In my teenage years, I’d cycle about 50 miles a week (or more) up and down the hills of the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. I’d dream of winning the ‘yellow jersey’ as I mimicked the likes of Pedro Delgado, Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain, Laurent Fignon and Sean Yates …

shutterstock_150825755 PORT DE PAILHERES,FRANCE- JUL 6:The peloton climbing the road to Col de Pailheres in Pyrenees Mountains during the stage 8 of the 100 edition of Le Tour de France on 6 July 2013.

Image: Shutterstock

My bike may not be evident anymore (or at least for now until my son asks for his first bike), but the dreams of winning ‘Le Tour’ are still intact …

Working solo …

In the mid-1980s, I’d cycle past the occasional groups of riders, huddled into teams, training and tinkering with their bicycles on the roadside as I whizzed by at 35 miles-per-hour (sometimes 40!). My state-of-the-art odometer would measure my mileage and speed and the sensation of being out on the road felt great!

However, I never had the confidence to join a cycling team. I was happy to train on my own, deep in my own thoughts with my destination and journey etched in my mind.

Fast-forward 5 years and as a young teacher, training at first in a mixture of private and state schools, I was free to teach in my own way with the support of a colleague not too far away from my classroom. Ofsted was the last thing on my mind (and coincidentally just being established) and the expertise of my head of department and a good scheme of work were everything a new teacher needed.

Over the 2-4 month placements, once every 4 years, I reflected on my teaching practice in a professional journal (see Memoirs of a Teacher) to understand what worked and what could be improved in my classroom.

At this time in the early 90s, moving to live in London was an exciting experience. I had left my racing bike at our family home and my mother and father dropped me off at Raymont Hall, Goldsmiths College. Tears rolling down my father’s eyes, this was the ‘true’ beginning of my career in teaching.

I was going solo …

For the next 4 years, everything I was now doing, was focused on becoming the best teacher I could be.

As a trainee teacher, teaching was a baptism of fire and after an unusual start into my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year, I finally secured my first post in the spring term, where I could actually start to be a teacher. However, teaching in Tottenham, North London in the late 90s was a battle. Students were tough and I wasn’t. We came from very different backgrounds and I had to learn on my feet quickly. Some lessons were good – or at least I thought so – and without any Ofsted terminology or criteria for ‘good teaching’, I carried on regardless using my deepening knowledge of pedagogy and reflection developed by my tutors at Goldsmiths College.

I was never observed in my first year of teaching. I really was going solo.

Classroom reflection:

Twenty-five years later, reflection has placed me in a good position over the three decades I have been in the classroom.

All good teachers need to be able to reflect on their personal journey in the classroom. Good teachers – whether teaching 10 or 20 hours per week – must have the capacity to ponder on what works and what interventions are needed to reach any student: disadvantaged, gifted or challenging.

shutterstock_204897127 Road cycling wide angle speed shoot

… as my confidence grew, I’d set out from home to cycle longer distances.”

Image: Shutterstock

Throughout this time, teaching a shadow timetable as a trainee, then a 70% equivalent loading compared to a full-time teacher gave me the time to grow and master my ability to teach well. In many ways, this reminds me of my formative years as a young cyclist, tinkering with the brakes and chains on my Raleigh racing bike before I set out to tackle the hills and country lanes of the Welsh valleys.

As my experience developed, I taught more lessons. I took more risks. I made more mistakes.

Equally, as my confidence grew as a road cyclist, I’d set out from home to cycle even longer distances, once tackling an expedition on my bike with pannier racks to hold a tent and supplies to cycle around the Cotswolds on a 200-mile circuit for a Duke of Edinburgh expedition. The experience made me a more confident road cyclist, battling longer distances with unexpected circumstances around each corner – very similar to the classroom – where a pot-hole or an articulated-lorry would require the biggest squeeze on the brakes handles to bring the brake-shoes and the brake pad rubbers tightly together against the aluminium rims of your wheels.

shutterstock_173976206 Bicycle accident on the road - Biker in troubles - Concept of sport failure and defeat during race competition

Image: Shutterstock

Screech … Crash!

I’ll never forget the image of my best friend crashing head over (w)heels into a ditch. The kind of crash you see on the Tour de France every summer.

His bike (and his body) were battered, but we carried on after several hours soothing his aches and pains by the roadside.


You see in teaching, riding a bicycle is very much the same as working in the classroom. Some days it works as expected and on other days, parts need tightening and a little tinkering.

I may not teach as much as I used to, or even ride a bike, but I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today if I hadn’t made mistakes or tweaked my pedagogy along the way. Or even better, was encouraged to take risks in a school where trust was given to me as a classroom teacher, a middle leader and as a senior teacher.


In Mary Myatt‘s new book, High Challenge, Low Threat she highlights ‘trust’ in the chapter, Making Mistakes:

[Mistakes] can only happen in a culture of high levels of trust, where colleagues regularly share their concerns about their own practice. When they do this, they are preparing the ground for holding others to account as well. When a culture has been created of high challenge, low threat, when all have taken the short amount of time to note the things that have gone well, then self-esteem is sufficiently high to own up to the mistakes and move practice on.

Developing this same work ethic in others requires practice. Cycling up and down hills, teaching tough lessons and classes where relationships have taken months and months to form. Our own self-esteem must be sufficiently high before we are confident enough to take risks in the classroom. If confidence is not fostered in our formative years, it will take several years to break old habits in our latter years, perhaps making us less likely to take risks and learn from our make mistakes.

You see in the classroom, ‘if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.’ And if you’re not doing anything, your probably not reflecting on the techniques you’re using in the classroom.

It could be time to get ‘on yer bike’?

 *main image: CyclingTips.

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7 thoughts on “Making Mistakes

  1. The bicycle riding / teaching analogy is a great one – one I indeed often use. I point out a few points very consistent with this excellent post. First, no one can teach you how to ride a bike; you have to learn how to ride. Second, it is very helpful to have one help you learn – to be another observer helping you reflect on your efforts and from time to time actually helping you physically. Third, maybe most importantly, you won’t learn to ride a bike and subsequently become better and better if you don’t make the decision to do so; when you do, those falls and the subsequent scrapes or worse will not stop progress because you’ve decided to do it! All fit with your analogy I believe!

    Love the phrase, “High Challenge, Low Threat.” Exactly what we in education should seek for our students. Pretty good goal to set for our individual lives as well… Hope to check out the book. Thanks for that as well!!!

  2. Great post and reflects my thinking totally especially after reading the excellent book by Matthew Syed “Black Box Thinking” which highlights need to use mistakes constructively and the dangers of not learning from mistakes or worse still trying to cover them up.
    My concern for education today is that in the high stakes accountability culture that permeates schools, going out there and trying new things, taking risks, knowing full well you may fall flat on your face is, if not discouraged, then certainly thought to be very “brave” (some may use that as a euphemism for stupid). Unfortunately I fear our educational system is rewarding opting for safety rather than going out there and taking risks – calculated risks of course.
    I fervently believe I’m a decent teacher now because I made plenty of mistakes in the past (and still do!). The secret is reflecting and learning from your mistakes so you don’t make those mistakes again? Mistakes can be such wonderfully rich learning experiences if embraced properly and I really do fear we are now growing teachers that may be more risk averse and this can only be to the detriment of education in this country.

      1. Totally agree – but I really do feel this is the silver bullet that could radically accelerate school improvement and ultimately the life-chances of our future generations. It is the paradox at the heart of modern education in this country!

  3. The best learners are characterised in addressing challenges by being creative with their ideas, taking calculated (and some uncalculated) risks confident that they will learn effectively from what did and did not work. They follow up with refinements and adjustments, collaborate, critique and can then apply their learning at an even deeper level (Dennetts ideas and thinking in @LearningSpy – aka David Didau’s site are well worth consideration!). No surprises and nothing particularly illuminating there then. However, we regularly reflect (or should do) on our own modelling of good learning strategies – and we should recognise who the most experienced (and, often, most proficient) learners in schools are …. teachers. And yet, the current regime has nothing in it which encourages or celebrates teachers adopting this stance. In fact, as mrchadburn (@mrchadburn) rightly points out, it does the opposite creating the biggest missed opportunity in our vocation.

    It will take a tipping point to be reached when our profession finally comes to the realisation that we do actually know best (up to a point) and that we really need some serious debate as professionals about what constitutes best practice in the drive to improve learning experiences, outcomes and subsequent opportunities for our kids. In addition, if we do not adopt a strength focussed and developmental coaching (and mentoring) approach the woeful predictions of teacher losses may sadly materialise.

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