Do you practise what you preach?

Have you ever thought about the discrepancy between what you tell your students to believe and what you believe yourself? I mean, don’t you ever preach water and drink wine? I think I do, quite often, without even realizing so.

busy hands 2

For example, I often tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes. However, I am terrified of making them myself. Regardless of the fact that my Teacher Self keeps telling me that making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning/doing practically anything, I’m not overly excited when I misspell a word when writing on the board or miscalculate a student’s test score.

Also, I constantly reassure my students that there’s no need to panic about giving a presentation in front of the whole class because nothing really disastrous can happen. The truth is, though, that I’ve rarely stayed calm in such a situation myself. I remember how terrible I felt when I had to give a 5-minute talk in front of a group of my fellow students at uni. I should add that it was supposed to be in German, in which I wasn’t exactly fluent, and it was only three years ago. Needless to say, my legs felt like jelly, my hands were shaking and I had butterflies in my stomach. What was worse, I had forgotten everything I had so laboriously memorized. Now that I think about it, my biggest problem was that at that time, I saw myself as an experienced English teacher, used to standing confidently in front of a bunch of teens. But all of a sudden, I felt like a schoolgirl again, which, under certain circumstances might have been exciting, except that it wasn’t.

I tell my students that it is learning that matters most – not the scores. I tell them that it’s primarily the process, not the result, which is the most valuable aspect of education. Still, I use grades to make my students learn. Obviously, there are many students who are internally motivated, and these love learning no matter the formal assessment, but there are some who just want to succeed. And it goes without saying that in their context, success equals decent grades.

I truly believe that it’s my job to help my students get used to accepting all sorts of feedback. Feedback is there to help them learn, after all. But I can clearly recall my exasperation when my German tutor gave me some rather unflattering feedback after the above-mentioned presentation. She was a little harsh, or, maybe, a tad too straightforward to my taste, but she was absolutely right. And I learned a lot from that particular lesson – mainly about myself and feedback.

Back then I felt it in my bones right from the start that my presentation wasn’t going to be a blockbuster, but it was not in my power to change the state of affairs prior the actual experience, simply because I didn’t have the knowledge needed for that change. All I could do was to learn from the failure and keep the newly-acquired knowledge for the future. This is what we often forget to take into consideration when giving feedback to our students; we sometimes reproach and reprimand, even though we use soft phrases like ‘You should have’, ‘Why didn’t you’, or ‘Next time you could’. But it’s not fair; our students rarely mess things up on purpose.

What’s the point in all the preaching then? I know too well that my students must experience failure and anxiety because it helps them grow. Likewise, I know that my little son is unlikely to stop worrying about monsters in the dark just because I reassure him they don’t exist. All I can do is to be there for him and with him. By the way, I’m sometimes afraid of the dark too.

And what about you? Do you drink water or wine? In what situations?

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
This entry was posted in Education, Just pondering ... and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Do you practise what you preach?

  1. ven_vve says:

    Hi Hana,

    I sometimes feel a bit hypocritical for telling my students – especially those at more advanced levels – that there’s always room for improvement, and that there’s always something for them to learn if they want to be more employable. On one level, there is some truth to these statements, but on another I’m pretty much implying that they aren’t as competitive as they could be in the world of work even though they’re at C1. Clearly, it’s a bit of a stretch. I used to tell advanced learners in my school this because, well, even I don’t have so little business sense as to tell a (prospective) paying customer, “Hey, no need for you to pay for classes with me; your English is great!” I tell my undergrads this because the class is compulsory and I’m not sure it’s very motivating to say, “Hey, your English is great! There’s nothing much for you to learn so don’t you worry about a thing until the final exam rolls around.”

    I’ve found a good way to counter this feeling is to remember that there are jobs where advanced language proficiency is valued. Hopefully, at least some of my students will end up doing these.

    On an unrelated note, I’m so glad to be leaving a comment on your WordPress blog! 🙂


    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Vedrana, I’m glad to be reading your comment on my WordPress blog 🙂 I used to work for a private language school, so I know what you mean. Our priority back then was a high number of paying customers. People would sometimes come to me and say: “I’m hopeless at learning English and I think I’d better quit.” My reply was always the same: “No, you aren’t hopeless; keep learning and things will get better soon”. Sometimes I felt the person was really unhappy, and I knew it would have been better for him to quit straight away. However, it was part of my job to persuade him to stay at all costs because losing a customer meant losing a tad of my income. Perhaps it was a good strategy and it helped that person finally fight his initial doubts, but I never felt I was being quite honest. Anyway, thanks for stopping by and leaving a thoughtful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ven_vve says:

        Oh, I always felt better about those who claimed they were hopeless. As long as I believed there was some noticeable progress to be made, I didn’t feel I was being dishonest by telling the student they should continue paying for classes. Even if the progress was slow. I _did_ have occasional twinges of bad conscience about writing positive progress reports on those students who were genuinely unmotivated and wasted their time and that of their teachers, but persisted with classes because they thought they were sufficiently high in the company hierarchy to have a right to 121 classes, for instance. We had some of those. But I didn’t feel too bad, really, because, well, bosses usually know the strengths and weaknesses of their employees.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Tyson Seburn says:

    I think we all do this, but it’s not hypocritical, but in demonstration to our students that we too are learners and some of our recommendations are ideals to strive towards, not absolutes that we have overcome ourselves. That’s ok.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks, Tyson. I agree that *hypocritical* is probably too strong a word for what I was trying to express in my post. I guess I just wanted to say that it’s good to know what it feels like to be a learner – what it means to be ‘imperfect’ again. This helps us, teachers, to be more compassionate and understanding. I suspect we sometimes give the impression that we never err, which is not fair to our students.


  3. Tesal K. Sangma says:

    Amazing! This is such a powerful post. Strikes home. Thank you, Hana!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Hana,

    It seems to me the problems you’re describing are all due to the judgementalism which is so deeply ingrained in our Judeo-Christian culture – probably in other cultures too. In Scotland in the 70s children were still being beaten in school for making mistakes. That’s not so very long ago. It’s not so surprising that though our heads tell us mistakes are natural and useful, at the the gut level we still feel deep shame. A student helped many years ago by getting me to laugh at a mistake I’d made.

    My mistake was much worse than a spelling mistake – I completely wasted at least 10 minutes of my students’ time. I had set up a situation which led to the students making a false hypothesis and they all started producing quite incorrect utterances. I had to say to them “Forget what you’ve just been doing. It’s all wrong and it’s my fault. I’m so sorry.” I felt dreadful. Then I added “You know I’m always telling you students have the right to make mistakes? Well, teachers do too.” Quick as a flash one of the (adult) students replied “Yes, but not more than three a day!” Everybody laughed, I felt much better and straightened out the problem.

    Afterwards, I started to notice how many mistakes a day I did make. I never managed fewer that three an hour let alone a day. Usually pedagogical errors that students didn’t notice … but I did. A very useful exercise.

    I’m so grateful to that student who taught me far more valuable lessons than any I taught him.

    Thank you for making me think about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Glenys.

      It’s very interesting what you say about the origin of our fears. I’ve never thought about it this way, but I think you’re right. Although religion doesn’t seem to have such a strong influence as it did in the past, we were brought up by our parents who were brought up by their parents and so on, so inevitably, some ideas are deeply rooted in our minds.

      I think it was a great idea to notice your own mistakes and count them. I’m sure you were able to draw lots of conclusions from the results. I’m aware of many of my pedagogical mistakes, but I suspect there are loads that just pass unnoticed.


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