Sharing practice #5: When things go wrong…

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Female stood at Lectern.

Sharing practice #5: When things go wrong…

In this week’s blog, we asked our members what they do when things go wrong in the classroom. Whether that be a technology breakdown, an unexpected interruption, or even an anxiety attack while presenting to a packed lecture theatre of students.

Here’s what our SIME colleagues had to say…

‘We always make mistakes when we teach, some big and some small. But what really matters is how we deal with them. With more experience, we get better with dealing with issues that crop up. Often, I feel the best way to deal with mistakes it to play it off, especially if it is something such as a mathematical error, or you simply just forget something. Acknowledging our mistakes helps humanise us and gets students on our side, rather than pretending we never make mistakes. But more importantly, our mistakes also help us develop as teachers.

‘In my own case, I found out that a lot of students couldn't see what I was writing on the whiteboards for the first few of my lectures. So I made a self-depreciating joke at the time to help diffuse some of the tension and promised to come up with a fix as soon as possible (the next class). From then on we used a visualiser instead, which all the students could see and was also recorded for students to better refer back to. Students massively preferred this scenario and it was nicer for me so that I didn't have my back to them whilst writing anymore. So in this case, a mistake lead to an improvement in the way that I teach.

‘Responding to feedback and coming up with a solution like this also helped build students’ confidence in me as an educator as it showed that I have their best interests at heart!’

Harry Rolls

‘One year a colleague from Nottingham Trent Uni introduced me to the Museum of Failure. I brought this with me to my Innovation class and we really enjoyed exploring how things went wrong in the world in order for the world to progress. We should hope that things will go wrong! Every year the education context changes and there are certain aspects of teaching and learning that we simply cannot predict or prepare for. Messing up is the best way to learn and introduce greater flexibility and resilience into our approach. We say to our students that they ought to learn by mistakes – we ought to start practising what we teach! My students usually do not notice that things have gone wrong. It is me who agonises over every detail. I then leave the classroom feeling down and defeated. The question is how could we support one another when this happens? Holding safe spaces for our own learning and reflection are crucial for innovation and advancement. I am lucky to have colleagues I can offload to and they pick me up with words of encouragement.’

Radka Newton

‘Depending on what is actually going wrong, I think there is a space to take some risks and adapt what you are doing. For example the computer fails, did you bring a pen can you go through this step by step on a whiteboard? This happened to me during my first job interview for a Teaching Associate post where when giving a sample class the interviewer turned off the computer (apparently by accident!) so I continued to give the class without slides but just using the board. I got an offer from them too.

‘I also find when things go wrong there may be an opportunity to involve the students to discuss in pairs / groups about the questions you are trying to answer in the class. This also gives you some time to sort out the issue or plan what you are going to do next. Naturally, knowing the content well and how it fits into the widder context of the module really helps here and gives you more scope for relevant questions. You may even find students appreciate a change from the usual approach and it can often show how passionate you are about what you are teaching and that you are happy to adapt where necessary to still give them the opportunity to learn.

‘I think its important not to panic or beat yourself up when things don’t go as well as you had hoped. Its often from when things go wrong in a single lecture, that we learn how and where we need to improve, which ultimately makes us better educators.’

William Tayler

‘This is an interesting question. I had not actually given it much thought before. Perhaps that is because as someone who has 35 years running an SME and laterally doing so alongside part-time teaching, I am constantly getting things wrong! Or at least constantly flexing to deal with something that has occurred to derail my lovely plans. Honestly, I just see it as ‘how things are’. In most cases the students don’t realise and there is no serious impact on the lecture / workshop. I would certainly concur with everyone that this all valuable learning, and as I teach in Entrepreneurship and Strategy it’s also a valuable entrepreneurial lesson for the students.’

Joseph Hall

‘What do I do when things go wrong? My honest answer is to fixate on what went wrong and spend too much time thinking about it and playing out different scenarios in my head about what I could have done differently in that moment!

‘Seriously though – in instances where the technology in the room has not worked I have asked students to do an activity whilst I sort it out. This may be an activity I had planned for later in the session or it may be a general question to discuss based on what we are going to look at in the session. On an occasion where the technology would not work at all I had my laptop with me and put the slides up to remind myself of what I was going to say. Most students had devices (or could share with someone else) so I asked them to open up the slides on their own screens so they could follow along whilst I spoke.

‘Where what has gone wrong has been more to do with the content of the lecture/seminar, or in relation to the ideas being discussed, I make notes after the session to update the materials ready for the next time I teach it. If something has not been properly understood then I will often find another way to explain it and use that at the start of the next session in order to recap what was covered previously. Alternatively, I may write up a little explainer and post it for the students on Moodle, or as an announcement.

‘Experience has taught me that you cannot plan for everything and that when you think you have made a mistake in teaching and everything went terribly, often it is only you that has noticed.’

Beth Suttill

‘I often think we can be our own worst enemies. Just like Beth, I also have a tendency to over-analyse my performance in the classroom as I am so keen to do a good job!

‘Though Harry is right – the mistakes are what make us human. We shouldn’t hide from our mistakes, as that wouldn’t be right. It certainly wouldn’t be authentic. Rather, we should own up when we make a mistake and use it as an opportunity to learn.

‘I actually really like Radka’s point about being prepared to fail – that failure in a way is part and parcel of the job, and something that we should embrace.

‘As I think about it, ‘fail’ probably isn’t the right word. None of us here have ‘failed’ in our teaching. But rather perhaps we have not achieved quite what we wanted. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Life throws up many surprises, and it’s down to us to respond in as best a way as we can. Of course we won’t always get it right, but just so long as we use these things to learn and to grow then that is the most important thing .

‘And as many of my colleagues here have suggest – more often than not, our students won’t notice anyway!’

Mike Ryder

Join our community

To find out more about SIME, and to join our community of scholars, please email Teresa Aldren. We host numerous events throughout the year, and are soon to publish our first journal, sharing practice from across the Faculty and raise the profile of the great work done by colleagues. You can also join our lovely SIME Teams community and contribute to blogs such as this.

We look forward to meeting you!

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The opinions expressed by our bloggers and those providing comments are personal, and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of Lancaster University. Responsibility for the accuracy of any of the information contained within blog posts belongs to the blogger.

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