View From the Classroom: Mistakes

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

We all make mistakes.  We make small mistakes and we make big mistakes.  We make mistakes with things, like money, or computers, or trains on our daily commute.  And we make mistakes with people, like friends, or family or colleagues.  We make mistakes in our personal lives, and we make mistakes in our family lives.  We even make mistakes as professionals (although we might not like to admit it).

Like it or not, mistakes are inevitable.  It’s how we deal with them that matters.

It’s a cliché to say that we should learn from our mistakes.  Of course we should.  We should reflect on our mistakes, deconstruct them, and reconstruct the sequence of events that led to them so as to see how we might have avoided them in the first place.  Then we should apply those lessons and avoid the same mistakes in the future.

But more: We should learn from others’ mistakes.  We can learn quite a bit by carefully watching others’ mistakes and how they deal with them.  This is all as true for law students and teachers as it is for anyone else—maybe even truer.  In my business, we make mistakes as much as anyone, and they’re often great fodder for learning.  Students can learn from other students’ mistakes; teachers can learn from other teachers’ mistakes.  But here’s one that we don’t often acknowledge: Students can learn from professors’ mistakes.

Speaking just for myself, of course, I can say that I make more than my fair share of mistakes.  I make technical mistakes, big and small, and I misjudge everything from my own time and schedule to communications with students and colleagues.  I can, and hopefully do, learn from these mistakes.  But my students can, too.  Students can learn that even professors and attorneys make mistakes.  And they can learn that they reflect, deconstruct, and seek to avoid them in the future.

It’s not always easy, though.  It’s hard to acknowledge mistakes to ourselves, much less to our students.  And it’s even harder to put them in full view as fodder for a lesson in professionalism, or as a life lesson.  It’s uncomfortable to feel vulnerable in front of anyone, maybe especially our students — the very people before whom we strive so hard to appear perfect.

But maybe that’s exactly why we should acknowledge our mistakes more freely with our students.  Mistakes, after all, are a part of life and a part of practice.  It’s how we deal with them that matters.  And that’s a lesson that we can, and should, model for our students.

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