Although teachers perform superhuman feats every day, the fact is we are only human. And being human inevitably results in embarrassing moments. Unfortunately for us, they sometimes happen in a classroom full of young, impressionable witnesses. Here are three categories of humiliating (and in hindsight, hilarious!) embarrassing teacher mistakes from my own experience, along with my advice for how to recover if they happen to you.
Slips of the tongue
Slips of the tongue have varying levels of significance depending on the awareness and age of the students, the specific words accidentally uttered, the intent behind the words, and the volume at which they were spoken. The recovery from a slip of the tongue depends on the relationship between all of these factors.
Strategy #1: Pretend it never happened
After I announced my elopement in my 3rd year of teaching, a student in 10th or 11th grade asked me if my husband and I were planning to have children. I replied flippantly (as I had to my family members), “Not yet, just practicing.” Realizing my faux pas and unsure if she caught it, with the luck of a well-timed bell, I said “Ok, so, see you tomorrow.” The moment was never mentioned again. The best recovery in that situation was pretending that slip never happened.
Strategy #2: Cover it up with clever word play
In another situation, covering up a slip of the tongue may be easier than pretending it never happened. Accidental expletives can be disguised. For instance, “Shiitake Mushrooms!” or “Fox in Socks!” contain endings that quickly replace an NSFS (not-safe-for-school) four-letter word.
In increasingly crowded classrooms, maneuvering among students and their belongings has become quite the hazard. In some of my classes, I have 30 nearly-grown young adults with backpack, lunch boxes, purses, and, frequently, large instrument cases. Circulating during tests and returning papers has turned into a some sort of country-line dance configuration of slide, spin, hop, and twist.
Strategy #1: Laugh it off
During one class period, my foot caught a folder and backpack strap, sending me both sliding and lurching forward as a stack of papers flew from my hands. I landed on my belly, arms out, in some sort of flying super-hero pose. The whole class gasped, holding their collective breaths until I started laughing. They then felt they could laugh, too.
When you have the ability to laugh at yourself, it teaches your students that you accept your own imperfections, and they are allowed to as well.
Strategy #2: Just own it
In that same class not more than a month later, I went to take my seat as the class ended. Unfortunately, I sat a little too high up on the tilt-able office chair. As I flipped over backward and my head slammed into the wall, I let fly one of those involuntary verbal emissions that accompanies such an incident.
Admittedly, I did not recover from this experience as gracefully. I curled into a fetal position under my desk as the bell rang to dismiss class. Two girls were so frightened, they took off to get the nurse. Although I was physically ok, I was mortified—more at the expletive I accidentally blurted than at my fall. But considering the potential seriousness of the situation, I let myself off the hook. And so did my students.
Some number of years ago, a musical superstar experienced a wardrobe malfunction while performing at the biggest televised football event of the year. Although teachers perform on a much smaller stage, such malfunctions in the classroom are no less scandalous or shame-inducing. I experienced one such incident in my first year of teaching.
Strategy #1: Take cover
In an effort to bond with my high school freshman, I was engaging in a small dance competition with a student as they returned from lunch. My participation was ill-advised since I was wearing a pencil skirt that might have become a bit snug. Suddenly, I heard a rip and felt a breeze clear to my waist on my back side. I immediately backed up to the wall and grabbed my suit jacket to tie around my waist.
Strategy #2: Once again, laugh it off
As the giggling began, I became grateful for two things: my sense of humor and my school’s extra clothing stash. I sent a girl with my general size information to grab a skirt or pair of slacks for me (which meant she had to explain what had happened to another adult).
From this wardrobe malfunction incident I learned to keep an extra set of acceptable work clothing with me. Unfortunately, I did not pass on this advice to my best coworker friend who split his pants in the middle of class one day and spent the rest of the day teaching American literature wearing a pair of running shorts with his button down.
Recovering from teacher blunders can be ego-bruising for sure, but don’t worry—embarrassing teaching mistakes happen to all of us and we all survive.