“We never make mistakes”

“We never make mistakes”

The concept of the fallible teacher is a fundamental of good education. Mistakes, failures and inadequacies  are part of life. Can students learn from you how to handle such things if you pretend that, for you, they do not exist?

It is important not to try to be God in the classroom. “I do not know” is sometimes an appropriate response to a student’s question because you are not omniscient. Or, if a student’s comment exposes a flaw in your argument, it is OK to say “well, if that is right, I will have to re-consider what I have just said” because you are not infallible. One of the biggest gifts you can give to your students is your humanity.

It is important also in your life as you share it with your students. If there is one thing teachers in our colleges are least likely to share it is their failures, as if these disqualify one from the teaching office. But was your life so far one glorious procession from victory unto victory? Doubtless that is true of a very few but such teachers will be less useful to students than ordinary people like you and I.

And it is unlikely to be how your students feel about their own lives, so how you coped with failure and mistakes is an important life skill to pass on. Trying for that which is special and falling short is a better example to commend than trying for nothing, for fear of failure, and achieving it. In any case, your students already have a sneaking suspicion that you are not perfect, so why pretend to what will not be believed?

In a leadership position, this is a vital attitude. No leader gets it right all the time, no leader is adequate for all the demands of the job. If you have held a leadership position then you already know that you will need, at times, to be forgiven by those you lead. That forgiveness will usually come if you are humble enough to admit to mistakes. There is a great contrast between the hagiography of popular church history and the realism of the biblical history that records the big mistakes of those used by God such as Moses, David, Peter and many others.

What I am really asking for is a real relationship with your colleagues and students; not a completely open relationship where you share everything – that is reserved for your few nearest and dearest and God- but a relationship of honesty rather than dis-honesty, not pretending to be something more than we are. We do not know, we make mistakes, we get it wrong and sometimes we have failed. And so we become “an example within reach” for our students.

It will not have escaped the notice of many readers that my title is the title of a little book of short stories by Alexander Solzhenitsyn about the then communist authorities in the USSR. Hopefully we do not have the desire for our students to make that comparison.

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11 Comments on ““We never make mistakes””

  1. William Says:

    I remember being asked to speak on guidance to all the students at college. My basic point was that my experience of guidance was like walking around with a black bin bag over my head – not very ‘spiritual’. The number of students who came up to thank me afterwards was amazing – far more than in a normal lecture course! i was rather surprised at their surprise that I was not on some higher spiritual level as a teacher… That experience brought the point of this post home to me.

    Having said that, sometimes students think that I know less than I do. One comment on a feedback form I received was ‘Please stop answering our questions with questions. If you don’t know the answer, just say so!’

  2. John Says:

    Thanks sir for your usual insightful and thought provoking articles. It is great to know that God can still use us in spite of our failings and inadequacies.

  3. Perry Shaw Says:

    An elderly preacher was once asked what he had learned from his years of ministry. His response: “I have learned two things: there is a God … and I am not him!” Students learn as much if not more from the model of the instructor’s life as they do from the substance of the lesson, and having the courage to admit weakness and even apologise to students when you wrong them is an extraordinary model of genuine leadership training.

  4. Jim Murdoch Says:

    Humility is a hallmark of belonging to Christ. It follows then that humility should be a hallmark of teachers but just as the pulpit can be a ‘slippery slope’ feeling of being ‘six feet above contradiction’ so too can the classroom. May God graciously keep us ‘real people’ who are willing to be seen with ‘warts and all’. How good it is to learn with one’s students.
    Thanks Graham for the reminder!

  5. First off I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your head
    before writing. I have had trouble clearing my mind in
    getting my ideas out there. I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted just trying to figure out how to begin.

    Any recommendations or tips? Thanks!

    • Hi Jeffry,

      I also hate working from nothing. Ideas come to me all the time, reading, preparing lectures, walking, in the night – even in sermons when i switch off! I jot them down with a little bit of development in a notebook ready for when I come to write the monthly blog. That way I am never sitting down staring at a blank piece of paper but already have a few lines of thought. I pray for guidance and that what I write will be useful and then carry on developing the theme until it gets to a first draft, then I type it into the computer.

      Sometimes, for instance preparing a talk or lecture, I take a blank piece of paper and put down all over it things I would like to say, in no particular order, just as they come. Second stage then is to create the best order, third stage is to write.

      Hope this is useful,


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  10. Alexander Says:

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