The straightforward title of Elizabeth Breaux’s latest book immediately caught my attention: How the Best Teachers Avoid the 20 Most Common Teaching Mistakes. I’ve interacted with hundreds of demonstratively effective teachers, all with wildly differing teaching styles and methodologies, and I’m always curious about the common elements behind their practice. What are the core practices they hold to despite the ever-swinging pendulum of educational trends? How do they keep from unwittingly sliding into lazy, dispassionate, and disconnected teaching? The reps for Eye on Education graciously gave me a review copy, and I explored the 146-page book over the course of a few otherwise-dull subway commutes.
How the Best Teachers Avoid the 20 Most Common Teaching Mistakes has a unique, easy-to-read format, with Breaux dividing her advice for each mistake into identical sections: Defining the Mistake, Examples of the Mistake, Correcting the Mistake, Avoiding the Mistake, and Bottom Line. With only 5 pages for each common error, Breaux gets right down to business and doesn’t waver from her point. Of course, the downside to this brevity is that she doesn’t provide highly detailed instructions for remedying the mistake. If you’re looking for specific ideas on how to differentiate instruction rather than make the mistake of teaching to the whole, you won’t find many pointers here (although Breaux does sometimes refer the reader to other books she’s written on related topics). This book is not designed as a practical step-by-step guide. Rather, the format lends itself well to use as a group book study: a quick, easy read of 5 pages per week, with endless practical applications being determined through discussion with colleagues.
Within the context of a book study or without, 20 Common Mistakes is a great tool for helping teachers view their practice holistically and identify personal strengths and weaknesses. Many educators have a vague sense that they and their students aren’t performing optimally, but they’re not sure exactly where things went wrong. Breaux does a fabulous job outlining typical teacher errors (most of which she admits to having made herself) in a supportive, non-condescending tone. This is a critical element in a book that’s devoted to pointing out everything you’re doing wrong: rather than leaving the reader discouraged and overwhelmed, Breaux’s writing style is clearly designed to help the reader close the book feeling informed and empowered to create needed change.
Breaux tackles mistakes such as foregoing the real-life connection, delaying feedback, and my personal pet peeve, allowing for unstructured time. Some of the mistakes are fairly self-explanatory, such as failure to organize, but the anecdotes Breaux provides give a fresh take. Other mistakes may come as a surprise (after reading mistake 17, you’ll discover you’ve probably been discouraging participation in your class, and mistake 4 will have you reconsidering whether you misperceive student questions as an attack and take their behavior personally.)
Breaux’s 20th and final common mistake is simply refusing to acknowledge mistakes. Here she gets to the heart of the book’s premise—“There is no proven way to avoid making mistakes, but why would we want to, even if there was? What we want to avoid is the mistake of failing to acknowledge mistakes. Without acknowledgment, mistakes cannot be corrected. Without being corrected, mistakes lose their power to teach powerful lessons.”