We all make mistakes. But for educators, mistakes can be particularly hard to deal with. For one thing, they can have big consequences—after all, a teacher’s role is to help shape young minds. And living with mistakes made in the classroom can feel lonely, since there’s a culture in education that prizes showing teachers at their best, and glossing over some of the biggest challenges.
One educator has set out to change that. He’s Jon Harper, assistant principal at Choptank Elementary, a public school in Cambridge, Md. He’s also host of a podcast called My Bad, where he asks a teacher to share a big mistake they’ve made, and to talk through what they’ve learned from it.
“I want people to listen to this podcast and realize that they’re not alone when they make big screw ups,” he said. “And yet we think it because what we see on social media—either Pinterest or Facebook or Twitter—you see the perfect classroom, or you hear about the perfect moment. The highlight reel.”
He’s been doing the podcast for more than five years, and he’s put out more than 100 episodes. The format is short, with each episode lasting only about 10 minutes. But they’re often emotional, and tackle the human struggles of teaching, including dealing with insecurity, work-life balance, and these days, the isolation and burn-out made worse by the pandemic.
Harper even turned highlights of the podcast into a short book, called “MY BAD: 24 Educators Who Messed Up Fessed Up and Grew!”
EdSurge: Why do you think teachers are often reluctant to share mistakes they’ve made?
Jon Harper: I think it comes down to psychological safety. And in the teaching profession, a lot of times folks are judged by mistakes. People will go in and do an observation. A lot of times someone’s looking for, where did they mess up or make a mistake? And you’re [marked] down for it. As opposed to in some environments [in other professions], people embrace mistakes. They say, That’s all right. Take that chance. Go for it. Maybe it didn’t work. But I think teaching is a scary profession in that you’re worried that someone’s always evaluating you.
That’s especially true last year [teaching remotely] with Zoom. I mean, you have parents, grandparents, guardians watching your every move.
Since we are living in that world, do your guests worry that coming on your podcast will be detrimental to their career?
I had a recent interview with a teacher who was very brave and came on the podcast. When she first started teaching her way of coping with all the stress and anxiety was through alcohol. And it was really powerful. I applauded her so much for this. And I’m certain she had to be a little bit worried about other people hearing this. But she talked about how she has [now been sober for a long time]. And she wanted people to know that they’re not alone.
It sounds like there’s also an impact on the relationship with students when teachers and educators are more vulnerable?
Absolutely. It helps when teachers share—once they’re willing to be vulnerable with kids. I’ve noticed this myself. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the classroom, but I take medication for anxiety, and I’ve shared this with students and parents before. And I have noticed myself that once I talk about that—and I don’t go into deep details with them—but once I share that with them and I’m vulnerable with them, they let their guard down a little bit. Once you’re willing to open up and share with them, kids will reciprocate. I mean if we’re being honest for so long teachers, we ask kids to come in at circle time and at class meetings and we ask them to share.
And yet, oftentimes we don’t share.
The more we can share, especially in this day and age, with all the anxieties and stress and depression and things that are going on. If you’re in a classroom where someone feels safe sharing, and they just pull you aside one-on-one or after class if they’re having a problem. That is so powerful.
Hear the complete conversation on the EdSurge Podcast episode.