This morning, I made a mistake in my grammar class. I told students the correct word in a sample sentence was who, not whom. That’s what the back of the book said, and while I myself chose whom when going through the exercise, in class I second guessed myself and gave the students the answer from the back of the book, along with an explanation that I thought justified the change in pronoun case. But then I began to second guess my second guess (is that a third guess?), and after talking it over with a few people, I decided the book was wrong. Just a few minutes ago, I sent an email to my students explaining why the book (and, hence, my in-class explanation) was incorrect.
One of the most difficult things for me about becoming a teacher has been learning how to admit my mistakes. Before starting at Michigan State, mistakes were (mostly) easily fixable. They were low-stakes. If I spelled a word wrong in a piece of fiction I brought to workshop, people pointed it out to me but assumed it was a typo. When I accidentally deleted a student record while working for an online learning office, we were able to recreate it without the student ever learning that she had disappeared from our database for part of an afternoon, and no one I worked with questioned my competency. My mistakes, ultimately, didn’t matter.
But now, when I misspell a word or, through a misunderstanding, give the wrong information in class, I’m called to account. After all, the students are paying for my expertise, and any mistake I make risks being multiplied through however many students are sitting in my classroom at that particular time. When I tell my students, incorrectly, that a sentence represents the subjective complement, they believe me and dutifully cross out the correct answer on their worksheet and replace it with the incorrect one. In the back of their minds, they make notes about how they were wrong when they were really right.
Owning up to my mistake might fix this—at least they’ll have heard the answer, even if the correct information now has to fight for priority with the incorrect one—but at the cost of losing a little piece of my expertise and authority. Their trust in me diminishes. Sometimes I try to calculate how many mistakes I can afford before it disappears entirely, as if trust is something that can be measured, as if it can never be regained. But things matter now, and I hate the feeling that I’ve let someone down.
As humans, we make mistakes. This is news to no one, but sometimes I feel as if I should be an exception—not because I deserve perfection, but because others might deserve it from me. I understand the power a teacher can have, and I know how it feels when your teacher lets you down. I told my students on the first day of class that grammar is something we can only practice—that we can never perfect it. Now I just need to keep reminding myself that I meant it, and that it applies to me as well.