Deep in final editing mode, I just cut a huge, redundant chunk out of one of the last chapters of Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning but couldn’t bring myself to trash it. Please enjoy and/or empathize with this particular form of pedagogical pain:
Just as you considered barriers to learning in previous chapters, it also pays to anticipate mistakes and malfunctions that might occur as you deliver instruction or training, particularly in synchronous online and face-to-face contexts. Part of the process of creating positive learning experiences is dodging the types of disaster that can shake your confidence, make you forget what you were saying, scramble for a solution, and generally look less than capable — any of which can instantly derail an otherwise sanguine learning dynamic.
Think about it. Have you ever watched a teacher trip or seen a presenter knock over a glass of water at a podium? What about listening to a webcaster struggle painfully through connectivity problems or some other type of technology failure? I have observed from anguished firsthand experience that when an educator does something embarrassing, it typically makes participants feel an uncomfortable mix of sympathetic pain and relief that it isn’t them up there acting the fool.
The problem is, once a snafu happens, those on the learner end of the instructional stick will either a) avert their eyes and never look back or b) finally pay real attention because they now expect you to make another mistake, which could be better than what you were going on about in the first place. “Never let them see you sweat” only goes so far during live delivery; there is little chance of ever being perfectly at ease or avoiding all mistakes, but you of course want to appear as calm, together, and collected as possible. At the same time, you should remain mindful of not tipping the balance and coming across like a clamped-down control freak, which only hastens murphy’s law.
You can’t prevent every conceivable teaching disaster, but you can help head off the more obvious at the pass with a bit of practical foresight and/or insight. Consider lessons learned from three of my own personal worsts:
1. Wardrobe Malfunction. I often wear belt buckles. Unfortunately, one of my favorites has a tendency to come undone spontaneously and bang on whatever table or surface I happen to be standing near, which obviously is not ideal when giving a presentation. To address the issue when it happens I have to not only rebuckle but yank my belt around vigorously to prevent further undoing and banging. Needless to say, I no longer wear this particular item of clothing when I teach.
Yet another praxo-sartorial nightmare: The Bay Area is not at all cold in the wintertime, which I might have figured out had I looked at the forecast before going to my job interview at UC Berkeley. Instead, I packed like I was flying into in an Ohio snowstorm. It was literally thirty degrees warmer than expected when I arrived in California, meaning that my wool blazer and sweater resulted in a sweating bullets–style presentation.
Moral: Wear clothes that you feel confident in and can count on to not embarrass you. Avoid anything uncomfortable or dicey. Also, know something about the climate you’re walking into.
2. Tech Meltdown. Once before giving a remote talk via Skype video I neglected to budget enough time to test the setup with the coordinator on the other end. When it came time to actually speak, we could not resolve the terrible echoing feedback caused by my amplified voice being picked up by the computer and rebroadcast through the auditorium PA, neither of which had noise-canceling software installed. This meant the audience not only could see me frowning and flustered on a giant screen, they could hear everything I said twice.
Moral: Test your tools early and well, then go back and test them again.
3. F . . . A . . . . This isn’t exactly a teaching moment, but close enough to be appropriately mortifying. Once at a highly anticipated spelling bee at a friend’s apartment I stood up in front of a room packed full of people and misspelled “fajitas” in the worst imaginable way. It gets better: not only was I literally the first contestant in the first round of the bee, I was also wearing a nametag that said something like “I’m a winner” at the time. Why did this happen? Because I absolutely knew how to spell “fajitas” and was overconfident enough to mindlessly replace my j with a g. Ouch.
Moral: Pace yourself, breathe, measure your words, and don’t be a know-it-all – it is far too easy to kick yourself in the mouth.
We have all spent plenty of time cringing at the center of attention. The core takeaway from my account of personal teaching disasters should therefore be no revelation: It is absolutely crucial that you derive useful future strategies from the challenging instances that threaten to derail your resolve. Otherwise, they create scars and feelings of post-traumatic stress that lead to a hatred of being in the limelight.
Gaining personal insight from disastrous, embarrassing, or simply ineffective moments is an excellent reflective technique that gets at the root of experiential learning, but it is only part of the story. There is actually a great deal of power in problematic teaching moments, which, if handled gracefully, can breathe fresh humanity into an otherwise rote scenario. The old adage of falling off the horse is propelled two steps further when it happens in front of an audience: As you climb back on, you should a) determine why you bit the dust in the first place to avoid doing it again, and b) act like you fell off on purpose or make fun of yourself for the duration of the ride in order to keep the those around you interested and/or confident in your ability to make it home in one piece.