I started teaching at American University at the age of 56 after a rewarding career as an environmental and wildlife film producer. That was almost ten years ago, and I’ll be the first to admit that I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had never taught before and I wasn’t even sure where to begin. I had no teaching philosophy beyond some vague, unarticulated feeling that I wanted my students to do well. And so, I started asking lots of questions.
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In the spring of 1991, I returned to teaching after more than five years as a Benedictine monk. The monastery had been founded in China in the 1920s, and when exiled after the Chinese Revolution, the community had relocated to the Mojave Desert in California. During my novitiate, I had taken up a private study of modern Chinese history, even though my research and academic formation at Cambridge University had been in early modern English puritan studies. When my community sent me to study theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, I also studied the history of missiology and continued to read about the modern emergence of Christianity in China. So when the history department of a small liberal arts college in Santa Barbara asked me to teach a non-Western course after I left monastic life, I suggested Modern Chinese History.
We’ve all been in the classroom when our lessons flop, our students get restless, and we feel like captains of a sinking ship. I claim that all teachers have bad days, but the best teachers are the ones who can learn from their mistakes. In this piece, I will reflect on a bad teaching day and what I learned from it. I will encourage you to take a reflective approach to your own teaching for your students’ benefit and for your professional development.
We regularly tell our students “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You can learn from your mistakes.” Most of us work hard to create classroom climates where it’s okay to make mistakes. We do that because if we’re there when the mistake is made, we can expedite the learning, and because we know that everyone else in class can learn from those mistakes.
If you’re like most educators, you probably made your share of teaching mistakes. This report features more than a dozen essays by instructors who were willing to share their early-career missteps and the lessons they learned. Because sometimes you just have to follow your gut, and sometimes your gut is wrong.