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The Grace of Teaching Mistakes


Melissa M. Kelley a
a
Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

To cite this Article Kelley, Melissa M.(2009) 'The Grace of Teaching Mistakes', Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 11:
4, 282 — 289
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Journal of Spirituality In Mental Health, 11:282–289, 2009
Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1934-9637 print / 1934-9645 online
DOI: 10.1080/19349630903307225

The Grace of Teaching Mistakes

MELISSA M. KELLEY
Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
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Teaching mistakes are often unwelcome intruders in our courses,


and we may think they are best avoided altogether. In contrast to
this perspective, this article proposes that teaching mistakes may be
occasions of grace both for us and for our students. Teaching
mistakes may be gifts of grace in four particular ways. Teaching
about our mistakes in pedagogically intentional ways may also
create a space for God’s gracious activity in our lives and in those
of our students. These points are illustrated by the story of the
author’s most powerful teaching mistake.

KEYWORDS operational theology, professed theology, Merle


Jordan, self-awareness, pedagogy

INTRODUCTION
Perhaps at first glance the title of this piece seems oxymoronic. We probably
all have negative responses, at least initially, to the thought of teaching
mistakes. To link teaching mistakes with grace seems odd or jarring, perhaps
even ridiculous. Aren’t teaching mistakes best avoided altogether or at least
dispensed with quickly when they do occur? What could the connection to
grace possibly be?
In this article, I will explore the connection between teaching mistakes
and grace in two ways. First, I will consider the universal experience of
teaching mistakes and I will propose that the mistakes we make in our
teaching may be gifts and even sources of grace, both for us and for our
students. Second, I will propose that there may also be a real grace to
working with the mistakes we make in a pedagogically intentional way; that

Address correspondence to Melissa M. Kelley, Ph.D., Boston College, School of Theology


and Ministry, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467. E-mail: kelleymu@bc.edu

282
The Grace of Teaching Mistakes 283

is, to teaching about our mistakes. To illustrate my points, I will draw on one
of my own most powerful and useful teaching mistakes.

My Mistake
First, I will provide a bit of background. I teach in the area of pastoral care
and counseling, and I am convinced that courses in this area must offer
students the opportunity to grow in self-awareness, a necessary cornerstone
of ministry. People can be hurt by the blind spots of ministers. Greater self-
awareness often means a greater capacity to minister well to others. One
methodology I use to encourage students in this regard is presenting the
work of Merle Jordan (1986) who invites us to explore how our professed
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theology may or may not be consonant with our operational theology,


which includes ‘‘the dynamic images, mental representations of God, world
view, maps of reality, belief systems, and value systems which actually
dominate the life experience of people’’ (Jordan, 1986, p. 29). Unlike our
professed theology, our operational theology may function outside of our
conscious awareness and yet can exert a powerful hold on us, for better and/
or for worse.
Aspects of our operational theology may bubble up and surprise us at
moments of major change or crisis. For instance, the sudden death of a loved
one may prompt questions that we would ordinarily never ask and might
even consciously disavow, such as ‘‘Why does God cause such suffering?’’ or
‘‘Why is God punishing me?’’ It can be quite painful (perhaps especially for
ministry students) to recognize disjunctures between our professed and
operational theologies. However, these very disjunctures may be important
opportunities for deeper self-awareness. For instance, we may recognize
ways we create meaning and relate to the Divine which are not serving us
well and which contradict that which we know deeply to be true. Such
recognition can generate tremendous personal and spiritual growth. I
believe that ministers and pastoral caregivers must be able to help others
struggle in these often painful ways, and they are better able to do so if they
have first struggled themselves. Therefore, I try to incorporate work on
professed and operational theologies into each pastoral course I teach.
So now, to my teaching mistake. Several years ago, as a new faculty
member at a graduate school of theology and ministry, I was teaching a
course on Grief and Loss. This was a new course for me, and it was a large
class. Throughout the semester, I felt some anxiety and self-consciousness as
I continued to try to get to know the institution, the students, and my
material. In one of the first classes, I was presenting Mitchell and Anderson’s
(1983) six categories of loss, such as role loss (e.g., loss of a job or a position
of status) and functional loss (i.e., loss of some bodily capacity, such as
through stroke or aging). For each category, I suggested some places in
Scripture where we might see these various types of loss. When I got to
284 M. M. Kelley

functional loss, I offered, ‘‘And, of course, Jesus’ legs were broken on the
cross.’’ Fascinatingly, no student challenged me or said a word about my
obvious mistake, either during or after the class, nor did I notice my mistake
immediately. I drove home from the class, reflecting on how things had gone
and feeling generally good about matters. I had a relaxing evening,
continuing to feel positive. Then, as I was drifting off to sleep around
midnight, I suddenly sat bolt upright and said out loud, ‘‘Jesus’ legs weren’t
broken!’’ (Needless to say, my husband and cat were freaked out.)
The process that unfolded from there was one of great learning for me.
For the next hour or so, I felt a bit frantic. I had been so convinced that Jesus’
legs had been broken on the cross that I quickly flipped through all four
Gospels to prove myself right. When it was clear that I had made a mistake, I
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was really confused. Why had I been utterly convinced that I was correct, to
the point of carefully typing the example into my lecture?
Then, I was mortified. As a new faculty member wondering if this
setting was a good fit for me, I was deeply embarrassed that I had been
‘‘caught’’ in such an obvious mistake. Imagine teaching at a Christian school
of theology and botching something so basic about the crucifixion! In
something of a panic mode, I started casting about for how I could ‘‘cover’’
myself (e.g., I considered e-mailing the entire class the next day to let them
know that I was aware I had made the mistake, or even implying that I had
done it intentionally for some important pedagogical reason that I was not
yet ready to reveal). I felt so terribly vulnerable and exposed as far from
perfect.
The great blessing in all of this for me was that I was able to consult with
one of my greatest mentors, someone with whom I have always been able to
be my most vulnerable. A couple of days later, I shared my mistake with her,
as well as my shame and embarrassment. In her great wisdom, she replied
that the greatest gift I could give my students in this situation was to talk with
them about my mistake and share what I had come to understand about how
I had made this error, as well as my process of dealing with it. She pointed
out that they will all make painful mistakes in their professional lives, and
that ministers have a great need and responsibility to be able to deal with
their vulnerabilities in healthy, constructive ways. Naturally, I responded that
she was wrong and that we needed to go to Plan B, but I knew she was right.
My greatest challenge, though, was figuring out what this mistake had
been all about for me. I did quite a lot of thinking and praying over the
following few days, and I finally had my ‘‘aha’’ moment. What I realized was
that this mistake was actually a manifestation of a powerful disconnection
between my own professed and operational theologies. Briefly put, I do
profess a God of love and great personal care, and yet there are ways—some
of them unconscious—that this profession breaks down for me in my own
life. Due to some of my own life experiences as well as my observations of
terrible suffering and injustice around the world, I sometimes am not
The Grace of Teaching Mistakes 285

convinced of God’s personal attentiveness and care for me and for others.
When I reflected on Jesus’ experience on the cross, what I was experiencing
viscerally—which then got translated into a conscious conviction—was a
sense of Jesus having been forgotten by God, having been neglected and
treated as no better than the common criminals with whom he was crucified
(and whose legs were broken, according to the Gospel of John).
Astonishingly, my mistake was a powerful example of the very phenomenon
of professed and operational theologies that I wished to elucidate for my
students. I realized in a deeper and clearer way that our operational
theologies are our constant companions, sometimes even shaping a teacher’s
lecture notes, mistakes and all.
In class the following week, I began by presenting the outline for the
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day, and I added that I would be talking at the end of class about the mistake
I had made the prior week. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen students sit up so
straight and seem so engaged. In the last portion of the class, I talked about
what the prior week had been like: my dawning recognition of my mistake,
my initial embarrassed responses, my working hard to understand—and not
simply judge—the error, and what it had ultimately demonstrated for me
about a piece of my operational theology. I have to say that it was a
teachable moment unlike any I had ever had before. There was a sense of
engagement and openness in the room that was palpable. The students
seemed to hang on every word as I described my embarrassment, and they
laughed uproariously as I shared my initial schemes for covering my mistake.
Numerous students thanked me for sharing all of this with them. One
student shared with the class that he had made an embarrassing mistake at
his ministry internship site the week before and had been stewing with the
embarrassment ever since. It had not occurred to him that there might be
something useful for him to learn about the mistake, let alone that he and
others might benefit from discussion of it.

THE GIFTS OF TEACHING MISTAKES


Probably no one relishes teaching mistakes. They can be embarrassing,
sometimes painfully so. Graduate programs and academic careers can
inculcate the need for teachers to be as close to perfect as possible, and
mistakes can shatter a carefully crafted sense of professorial identity. As
Palmer (1998) maintains, ‘‘teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability’’
(p. 17). With any and every mistake, teachers can feel exquisitely vulnerable
and eager to move beyond the moment as quickly as possible. And yet,
mistakes are inevitable. And mistakes can be gifts, providing great grist for
the mill of teaching and learning. I would suggest that mistakes may benefit
the experience of classroom teaching and learning in four ways.
286 M. M. Kelley

First, and perhaps most obvious, some teaching mistakes help us to see
areas where we need to engage in more focused research. I am mindful of
the old adage, ‘‘You never learn something so well as when you try to teach
it.’’ Teaching can highlight both what we know and what we don’t know. It
can illustrate our strengths as well as our gaps. This is all useful information.
Mistakes that point out gaps in our own understanding can propel us to
deeper study and integration. Mistakes can be one of a teacher’s best friends.
Second, teaching mistakes may be liberating for students by humanizing
their teachers. While there may be a strong pull to reject this particular gift,
let us not rush to that response. As many of us readily remember, the
graduate school experience is often a perilous one for students. They may
feel alternatingly infantilized and expected to perform at an unreasonably
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high level. They may feel small and incompetent when compared (in their
own minds at least) to their peers. They may feel especially incompetent as
they compare themselves to their accomplished teachers. Witnessing a
teaching mistake and recognizing the humanity—the realness—of a teacher
can be liberating. It can free students to risk their own mistakes in the pursuit
of deeper learning.
Third, and in a related vein, teaching mistakes may be liberating for the
teacher. We may be living with unreasonable expectations that we must
always reach a degree of perfection in every class and that there is little to no
room for error (Brookfield, 2006). These expectations of perfection may be
set both by us and by our institutions. For instance, in an article suggesting
10 ways to recruit more junior nursing faculty, Hessler and Ritchie (2006)
prescribe the following: ‘‘Allow for mistakes’’ (p. 150). They propose that if
senior faculty allowed junior faculty to make some mistakes in their early
years of teaching, more young people might enter the field. The clear
implication seems to be that, at least in some institutions, mistakes by junior
faculty are unacceptable. One can only imagine the impossible burden of
perfection this creates for young—let alone seasoned—faculty members. Of
course, many teachers carry self-imposed expectations of perfection. Sadly,
such expectations can function to strangle creativity, which is sometimes
messy and imprecise. In the face of such constricting expectations, mistakes
may be liberating for teachers. Mistakes cut through the impossible veneer of
perfection, allowing us room to breathe deeply and infusing our teaching
with more oxygen. Our overall approach may then be freer, more expansive,
and more creative.
Flowing from the previous, a fourth gift of teaching mistakes is to move
us toward helpful and creative humility in our teaching. I would like to
contrast humility with humiliation. For a teacher with extremely high or
perfectionistic standards, a teaching mistake may result in a feeling of
humiliation. Humiliation means degradation, shame, disgrace. Humiliation is
the feeling that something about our very selves is bad or shameful. In her
essay ‘‘Pedagogy of the Distressed,’’ Jane Tompkins describes the terrible
The Grace of Teaching Mistakes 287

fear that can plague teachers, and her words capture this sense of
humiliation: ‘‘Fear of being shown up for what you are: a fraud, stupid,
ignorant, a clod, a dolt, a sap, a weakling, someone who can’t cut the
mustard’’ (as cited in Palmer, 1998, p. 29). I would like to propose that
teaching mistakes ought not to be a source of humiliation, but rather of
helpful humility. Related to humus, meaning earth, humility describes a
posture of modesty or lack of pretension. In a literal sense, humility keeps us
grounded in who we are, imperfect human beings made of dust and who
shall return to dust. Humility reconnects us with our humanity in ways that
can be both freeing and empowering. Liberated from the impossibility of
perfection, we may risk getting our hands dirty and thereby create
something new and unexpected.
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THE GRACE OF TEACHING MISTAKES


Thus, we can see the potential gifts of teaching mistakes. Mistakes may
clarify areas for continued study and focus. They may be liberating for
students by humanizing teachers. They may be liberating for teachers by
cutting through perfectionistic and stultifying standards. And they may help
us to embrace a posture of helpful and creative humility, rather than
humiliation. We may even say that teaching mistakes may be occasions of
grace; that is, they may be moments of God’s inbreaking in our lives, moving
us toward clarity of focus, freeing us from perfectionistic demands and
expectations, liberating us to teach out of our God-given humanity, and
encouraging students to bring all of themselves to the classroom, to learning,
and to life. Teaching mistakes may be a graced leavening in the educational
enterprise, resulting not in the disgrace (dis-grace) of humiliation but rather
in the grace of humility that is both helpful and creative. By accepting and
even embracing our mistakes, we may come, like Paul, to find our strength
in weakness through God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

TEACHING ABOUT OUR MISTAKES


Beyond acknowledging the possible gifts and the grace of teaching mistakes,
is there a way to work with them intentionally and creatively that is
pedagogically helpful? I believe so, although this position is not well
represented in the literature. Many authors seem to understand mistakes as
unwelcome and unfortunate events which ‘‘can disrupt the teacher’s actual
aims and set a course toward pedagogical failure’’ (Farley, 2005, p. 200). In
contrast, reflection on our own experience of learning probably reveals that
we often learn as much or more from our mistakes as from our successes.
The mistakes of others can also help our learning. For instance, one study
(Lorenzet, Salas, & Tannenbaum, 2005) has demonstrated that teaching
288 M. M. Kelley

people to use a new software program through guided errors (that is, by
sharing the mistakes commonly made when people are first learning the
software) resulted in excellent learning of the program.
I propose that in our classrooms, intentional conversations with
students about our teaching mistakes may enhance learning. In certain
cases, teaching about a mistake may even advance the curriculum. This
certainly seemed to be the case when I shared my teaching mistake with my
students. In subsequent years, when I have taught about professed and
operational theologies, I have sometimes used my mistake and my resulting
process of learning as illustration. Each time, I have found the students to be
truly engaged by the conversation. My mistake seems to elucidate the critical
area of professed and operational theologies in a real and accessible way.
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Rather than disrupting my aims and leading to ‘‘pedagogical failure’’ (Farley,


2005, p. 200), my mistake has advanced my teaching goals and helped my
work in the classroom.
Teaching about our mistakes may also serve students outside the
classroom. Ministry students are entering a profession where many will
expect—and need—them to be perfect, and if they accept this expectation
they will be burdened by it. They need a facility for embracing their
limitations, and for letting others know they are not perfect. Teaching about
our mistakes may model a process of self-awareness and helpful humility
that benefits not only our students but also those to whom they will minister
in the future. Thus, teaching about our mistakes may also be an occasion of
grace, allowing the inbreaking of God to lead to fuller self-awareness, self-
acceptance, and subsequent freedom in ministering carefully and authenti-
cally to all God’s people.

CONCLUSION
Of course, self-disclosure about a teaching mistake such as I have described
must be done out of sound pedagogical judgment, not for its own sake nor
out of an inappropriate need on the teacher’s part to be seen or understood
by students. One must be clear that self-disclosure is for the sake of good
teaching and learning or it may be ethically questionable (Ejsing, 2007).
With this caution in mind, I conclude by reiterating that teaching mistakes
may be gifts of grace. Our mistakes may be occasions of God’s freeing and
renewing activity in our lives, both personally and professionally. Our
mistakes may empower us to embrace and teach out of our full humanity,
thereby encouraging students to be all of themselves, now and in the future.
Our mistakes may reconnect us with the ground of our being, fertile ground
where new and unexpected life may erupt, through God’s grace. An embrace
of our mistakes may lead us to echo the words of Paul, who preached both
about his mistakes and about God’s gracious activity in his life:
The Grace of Teaching Mistakes 289

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I


persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace towards me has not been in vain. (1 Corinthians 15: 9–
10a)1

NOTE
1. The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized ed.), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of
Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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REFERENCES

Brookfield, S. D. (2006). The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness


in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Ejsing, A. (2007). Power and caution: The ethics of self-disclosure. Teaching
Theology and Religion, 10, 235–243.
Farley, E. (2005). Four pedagogical mistakes: A mea culpa. Teaching Theology and
Religion, 8, 200–203.
Hessler, K., & Ritchie, H. (2006). Recruitment and retention of novice faculty.
Journal of Nursing Education, 45, 150–154.
Jordan, M. (1986). Taking on the gods: The task of the pastoral counselor. Nashville,
TN: Abingdon Press.
Lorenzet, S., Salas, E., & Tannenbaum, S. (2005). Benefiting from mistakes: The
impact of guided errors on learning, performance, and self-efficacy. Human
Resource Development Quarterly, 16, 301–322.
Mitchell, K., & Anderson, H. (1983). All our losses, all our griefs. Philadelphia, PA:
The Westminster Press.
Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s
life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.