Sunday / July 21

Sex Ed, Lab Fires, and Throwing Up: Learning From Rookie Mistakes

After the sex ed video on nocturnal emissions, the pale, horror-stricken fifth grade boy timidly raised his hand, “Does it really come out in arrows?”

The homemade lava lamp I had created with a Bunsen burner, ring stand, flask, stopper, and flammable oils to demonstrate the relationship between heat and density erupted. Flames were rising from my seventh grade science lab’s demonstration table, nearly to the ceiling. One of my students was running down the hall yelling, “Mr. Eckert just set the lab on fire!”

His face was turning that awful shade of green that parents and teachers know – breakfast is coming back up. We were on a bus traveling at 52 miles per hour. His window was down. I yelled from the front of the bus, “Put your head out the window.” As you field trip veterans will understand, this was a bad idea for the students sitting in the four window seats behind him.

Good questions you may be asking: Why didn’t he have students write their questions down? Why was he creating a demonstration lava lamp with flammable oils and an open flame? Why would he ever tell a student to stick his head out the window?

These three glimpses into my teaching experience are not ones that I have shared in job interviews. If you are smugly feeling a bit better about yourselves, you are welcome. You may be wondering why I am still teaching.

If you have been teaching long enough and are honest, you know that we all have stories like these – maybe not as egregious – but we all make mistakes. These mistakes, coupled with transparent reflection, are necessary for improvement.

In The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher, I describe the “Four Rs” of this improvement process. Our reflection should inform our risk-taking. For example, in my second year of leading “Family Living” talks, I had students write their questions down on notecards and submit them anonymously so I could filter them and compose myself prior to answering. The reflection may be a brief realization that a lesson is not working, but we have to identify the need we are addressing before taking a risk. This could be as simple as recognizing that we are doing too much of the talking and re-directing our class to more collaborative group work – or deciding that we need to enliven our discussion of density with a flammable lava lamp.

This model is a structured way to think about risk and reflection with a number of ideas to make this an iterative process. We do this already – we just need to be sure it is intentional and as well informed as time allows.

Eckert model


After taking the risk, we return to reflection to determine if we should reject (e.g., no more lava lamps) the idea or revise it (e.g., notecards for “Family Living” questions) for what is next. There is no shame in rejecting an idea. We should not defend an idea that should be scrapped. The good news is that most of the time there is something that can be salvaged. We need to identify if it was a bad idea, bad execution, or both. Upon reflection, some aspect of the idea will be redeemable and should make you a better teacher because of the experience. That revised idea leads to further risk-taking and the cycle continues all the while informing and being informed by the reciprocal nature of a personal learning network (PLN).

If we identify a more significant need that will require a more significant change, we should spend more time considering our options. Depending on the size of the risk, we should inform our reflection with our PLN.

Ultimately, our profession should be about getting better together. Let’s stop judging ourselves and others and get better through deliberate practice and thoughtful risk-taking.

Written by

Jonathan Eckert was a public school teacher outside of Chicago and Nashville for 12 years. He earned his doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Currently, he is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College where he prepares teachers and returns regularly to teach in the district where his career began. In addition to leading professional development across the country, he has published numerous peer-reviewed and practitioner articles on teaching effectiveness and education policy.

Jon is the author of The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher.

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