Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

The Number One Teacher Mistake

By Bill Page

Former title:  If You’re Gonna Be a Camel, YaGotta Have a Hump;  But Nobody Says You’ve Gotta Be a Camel.

Discovery of a pivotal mistake in my teaching radically changed my life and lives of my kids.


“Hallelujah! At last, I’m a teacher!”

I felt competent to teach.  I was confident I could teach better than those boorish teachers I’d had in my own schooling.  I was 27 years old, a Korean War vet, weighed an energetic 270 pounds, and couldn’t imagine anything but success.  Wow!  Was I wrong!  I was a failure—but not in classroom management where new teachers typically fail; I failed in the very essence of my job:

My teaching didn’t get through to kids’ heads!

Teaching Only Part of the Lesson to Part of the Students Is Unacceptable

It was incredible!  How could this be?  In my head and heart, I knew I was a doggone good teacher.  I presented creative, dynamic lessons that students responded to enthusiastically.  I was shocked, for no matter what I taught, how I taught, or how simple, logical, and sensible the lessons, the kids understood only a portion of them.  And, like so many other teachers, I began expecting kids to fail.  Rarely did any but the top two or three students “get” the entire lesson content.  Most learned at only a C level, missing significant parts of my lessons.  I began to fret:  “What is wrong here? All kids can learn, and they all need to!”

Every Kid Can and Should Learn Everything

I expected all of the kids to learn all of the material.  Why shouldn’t I expect that?  I began questioning myself:  When a student gets an 80 on the unit test, which 20 percent of the unit is it okay to miss? How can I take them to the next unit without their having mastered the current unit?  I never succeeded in teaching all the necessary content to all the kids, so I had to face the fact that I was a failure.  Even though other teachers tried to reassure me that it was okay to have just a few kids get A’s, and for the rest to be strung out all the way to F’s, I couldn’t accept that.  Somehow I knew I couldn’t take credit for teaching those who got A’s without also having to take the blame for others who didn’t learn at an A level.

How could I accept students strung out on a continuum? Surely I couldn’t accept F’s…? I was there to teach kids, not flunk them.  After all, I was a certified, fully-credentialed graduate with a bachelor of science in secondary education.  Listed on the faculty roster and assigned 162 kids in five language-arts classes—I must be a teacher; instead, I was a failure. That is, UNTIL I discovered an astonishing “teaching secret,” a startling “Eureka!”  It was a stunning discovery from which I would never recover.  Hang on!

A Genuine Aha! Moment

 As I continued to struggle without success, the simmering revelation was building.  Surprisingly, I had no clue, not even a suspicion, that I was making a fundamental error.  . . until that awesome moment I learned I was making the number one teacher mistake.  Then, unexpectedly, I experienced a magnificent grand disclosure of my egregious teaching error.  My disturbing failure was terminated by an eye-opening revelation.  The sudden, surprising “aha moment” grabbed my sensibilities and never let go.  These overwhelming feelings were destined to build, intensify, and last through the remaining decades of my teaching.  I will reveal that universal error in a moment.

That One Mistake Caused Many Other Errors

 Unfortunately, because of the underlying error, I realized that I could be considered among teachers notable for their yelling, threatening, condescending, sarcastic, and negative teaching methods. And, I was part of the dedicated group who sabotaged their best teaching with gestures of approval and non-approval, nonverbal facial expressions, and body language.  My students were playing the school game of please the teacher without really learning.

Admittedly, there are mistakes of omission, commission, and inadequacy in teaching.  Even so, I now understood how that one basic, bedrock mistake contributes exponentially to countless other teaching mistakes, each only seeming like a stand-alone, correctable problem.

“The Mistake” Caused Other Mistakes

 Making mistakes, misjudgments, and misdiagnoses are understandable in light of the abundance of research showing that teachers can make three hundred or more “executive decisions” in a single class period.  The wonder is that teachers do as well as they do. But that is all relative because “the number one mistake” supersedes all others by a whopping margin.  In addition, “The Mistake” causes other mistakes, which results in a teacher coercing, rewarding, and punishing students.  “The Mistake” is responsible for many moment-to-moment difficulties and ineffectiveness, and contributes to student misbehavior and sub-par achievement.

When I uncovered “The Mistake,” I was appalled at the naivety and secrecy attached to it:Education had an embarrassing secret so debilitating and so pervasive that it was unmentionable.  This grievous error is destructive to the very premises of education.  It is undeniably the greatest and most insidious error teachers make.  With feedback, experience, and reflection, many teaching errors can be eliminated.  But, an error that is hidden, denied, or unknown cannot be corrected and therefore, must be discovered. I had made a discovery which changed the way I looked at education.

I Discovered THE TRUTH

 When the “bolt out of the blue” struck, I knew—absolutely knew—that “The Mistake” was real.  Why did I learn the truth, while so many others continued struggling?  I have no idea!  What I do know is that I am not willing to deny my truth, just because so many other teachers do not see it or accept it.

Thinking that they are teachers is the number one mistake teachers make because it causes them to ACT like teachersIf we think like teachers, we behave like teachers. That’s “The Mistake” I was making.

What is known as “teaching” is really just the various ways of helping kids learn.  Since it is not possible to learn for another person, only the learner can know what constitutes “help”; i.e., what makes the difference in increased meaning and understanding.  Furthermore, learning requires that the learner is in control of the “help”—actively soliciting, filtering, and clarifying the help being offered.  “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” John Holt

Kids learn, but cannot be taught in the usual sense of the word.

Schools control practically every aspect of kid’s school lives.  Teachers are charged with student learning and are obsessed with control.  The teaching role emphasizes teacher-directed domination.  What is labeled as classroom “leadership” is in reality a subtly “masked” relationship involving sublimated coercion and fear.  Classroom analyses usually focus on teaching behaviors and test-score outcomes rather than on individual teacher-student relationships.

In every activity, teachers tell students what to do, where to do it, when to do it, and how to do it. Teachers possess a power imbalance with fearsome ability to threaten, demean, embarrass, isolate kids, and even to arbitrarily lower grades if they are of a mind to do so.  The power is always present, ever lurking, exercised or not.  Additionally, because students “perform” in a “fishbowl,” teaching methods can subject them to potential ridicule, public failure, punishment, competition, and embarrassment.

It Is Impossible to Learn for Someone Else

 Actually, there is no such thing as teaching, there is only learning.  Teachers do not teach.   They can act in ways that enable student learning to be more easily accomplished, increasingly possible, valuable, meaningful, or—conversely—teacher actions can make new learning more difficult, complicated, unlikely, or even impossible.  Teachers can help students learn.  But, teachers cannot learn for students; no one can learn anything for another.

Students themselves do whatever it takes to learn; each learns for him/herself.  There is no such thing as passive learning.  The material to be learned does not get poked into kids’ heads while they sit and wait.  Each kid comes to a learning situation with prior knowledge, interest, aptitude, and attitude.  Students learn by way of their own application, integration and construction of new knowledge from information already existing in their own heads, in their own ways.

“Learning” is making sense, making connections, and generating mental patterns of incoming data.  Learning is up to individual learners.  Without student’s effort, activity, existing knowledge, and contribution, no learning can take place.  Learning is a function independent from “teaching.”  Kids learn from people at home and other kids.  That’s why books can be their teacher, experiences can be their teacher, erroneous advice can be their teacher, and the world can be their teacher.

 Thoughts on the Teaching versus Learning Concept

1. New, proven learning concepts abound, but allowing differing opinions and contrasting perspectives is more difficult to manage than lessons directed toward one right answer.

2.  Teachers thinking of students as blank slates, treating them as a group, presenting as an authoritarian, assigning the identical work, and using a singular assessment and grading procedure is just too ingrained.

3.  Focusing on teacher-learner relationships, rather than on just teaching, requires a fresh perspective, while familiarity with previous teaching theories provides only for what is best known rather than for what really works or what each kid needs.

4.  Teacher training by example is more influential than concepts taught in pre-service and in-service meetings.  Professional development activities utilizing leader-learner relationships have a better chance, but are generally rare.

5.  Reinforcement of traditional teaching by students, parents, and other educators is most likely an integral part of teachers’ daily experiences.  Teachers must have confidence in themselves, and trust in the students, in order to make the transition to learners’ full participation in their own learning.

6.  Until teachers have genuine opportunities to reflect on, experiment with, and experience new ways of relating to students, they will think mostly of teaching rather than students’ learning.  But with reflection, the learning approach just makes sense.

7. Thinking they are teachers leads to domination of the teacher-student relationship by the teacher, and places emphasis on student obedience, compliance, and conformity.  Some manifestations might include the following:

a) kids are dependent and compliant, which is antithetical to meaningful learning;

b) the relationship is built on dominant-submissive roles;

c) the usual one-way control of communication is prevalent and limiting;

d) students being graded are made to feel subjugated, unworthy, and inferior;

e) students, seeking permission, feel demeaned, powerless, and unsure;

f) students feel the need to please more than they feel responsibility for learning;

g) everyone’s expectations are toward a traditional teaching relationship.

8.  Students are coerced into compliance, which is the opposite of what is necessary for maximum learning.  Without participation in decisions, learning is at best superficial.

9.  Productive and satisfying educative relationships cannot be built on fear; yet teachers’ enormous power to reward, punish, and intimidate students, and to create pervasive fear, reduces students’ ability for meaningful learning.

10.  First-year teachers are usually about twenty-two years old and eager to make a living.  On their first day of teaching, beginners have precisely the same authority and dominance potential as veteran teachers.  They are not likely to understand the teaching versus learning dilemma.

11.  Some teachers are satisfied with their teaching efforts; consequently, students who do not learn are faulted for not learning.

12.  “Teaching” is something teachers do to students; “learning” is something a teacher may be able to help with, if the student, at the deepest level, allows the teacher to be involved.

13.  Individual student learning is the key to critical thinking, problem solving, and individual achievement, including those students who are most at risk.

14.  Learning takes place inside a kid’s head, and there is no way of telling beforehand which part of a lesson the kid will or will not understand.

Students Risk Making Mistakes

Learners make mistakes; they need to be free to err with impunity.  By welcoming mistakes, teachers have an opportunity to facilitate learning and encourage student efforts toward self-initiated learning.  Conversely, controlling students’ learning by teaching is achieved through coercion—the opposite of what is required for significant, long-term learning.

Coercion can get students’ attention, but such learning is inefficient, minimal, and short-termed.  Coercion leads, at best, to getting students to “act” like they are paying attention.  No one can force anyone to learn.  That is the reason we have compulsory attendance laws instead of compulsory education laws.

Students Can Either Control Themselves or Be Controlled

 With sufficient coercion, student behavior can be controlled so long as teachers have power, or, empowered students can learn to control their own behavior.  However, these two procedures are mutually exclusive, leading to entirely different outcomes.  The alternative to coercion is encouraging students to participate in decisions regarding their behavior while making conscious choices through self-reflective questions and dialogue.

My goal is not teaching.  My goal is partnering with learners to produce learning through individual relationships and shared decisions.  I use the terminology produce learning because it connotes students and teachers together creating learning, not just assembling or organizing data.  Errors offer teachers information about how to provide help that students actually need.  Kids don’t need grades.  They need feedback and learning experiences that directly impact and enhance their lives.  Kids’ brains are always learning—with or without teachers.

Failure Is a Contrived Concept

The concept of failure, or lack of achievement, is derived from time-scheduled, teacher-imposed content, based upon an assumption that the school’s trivia is of more value than the kid’s trivia.  It is not possible to control all of what transpires in the interactive process.  The results depend on the interdependent processes.  But, whatever is decided can be “undecided and re-decided” by the same democratic processes, if the results do not meet the needs.

The teacher’s task is to provide a climate, a setting, an environment and atmosphere of trust, high morale, belonging, cohesiveness, interpersonal relations, and shared experiences.  It’s really easy to know what kids need most—it’s precisely what we adults need most.  As we seek that for ourselves, we need only to permit kids to seek it as well.

Kids Are Always Learning

 It is ironic—almost like a diabolical joke—that kids are learning continuously, effortlessly, all the time from many sources, but teachers can’t teach them!  Science is now certain that learners develop concepts, patterns, and underlying content.  They construct and sense meaning through inductive or deductive reasoning.  TV and other media, CDs, DVDs, the Internet, ads, sports, games, studying, experiences, reading, observing, playing, traveling, friends, family, self-talk, people, achievements, successes, and classes provide learning opportunities—but only when each kid, individually, is allowed the responsibility for “teaching”  him/herself.

If you’re gonna be a teacher, yagotta teach;

but, nobody says yagotta be a teacher.


With joy in sharing,

Bill Page

Comments and questions are welcome and will be answered.

About Bill Page: Bill wrote: At-Risk Students: Feeling their Pain, Understanding Their Plight,and Accepting Their Defensive Ploys—Insights into Kids Who Can’t, Don’t, or Won’t Cooperate, Behave, Follow Procedures, or Even Try to Learn.

This newly revised280-page book, $24.95, is in its second printing. Bill, now retired, specialized in teaching “kids who have trouble or cause trouble in school”—he did not label them. Retired, after 50 years of teaching, Bill says, “I’m a self-appointed, At-Risk Student Advocate, deeply committed to the kids ‘who never have a good day.’”

Bill Page believes that the pain, humiliation, desperation, failure, and retention inflicted unnecessarily on defenseless, innocent kids by archaic school policies constitute child abuse as tragic as the highly publicized child abuses. Failure is the primary cause of dropping out, a process that begins in primary grades and ends with the actual dropout event at age sixteen.

The odds of a dropout going to prison are greater than the odds of his/her getting a job. Permitting kids to fail and drop out subjects them to a cruel life, which the leading authority, Dr. Martin Haberman, described as a sentence of death, one day at a time.

When one child flunks each year, it’s a personal and family tragedy;

When fifteen million children flunk it’s just traditional school policy.

For more information,, or contact



Comment on this article...

Next Article...
This entry was posted on Thursday, December 1st, 2011 and is filed under *ISSUES, Bill Page, December 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
By State
AL   AK   AZ   AR   CA   CO   CT   DE   DC   FL   GA   HI   ID   IL   IN   IA   KS   KY   LA    ME   MD   MA   MI   MN   MS   MO   MT   NE   NV   NH   NJ   NM   NY   NC   ND   OH   OK   OR   PA   RI   SC   SD   TN   TX   UT   VT     VA   WA   WV   WI   WY