During a weekly spelling test with a class of first-graders, I noticed that one of my students, Cindy, hadn’t written anything on her test. “I can’t remember any answers!” she choked out through tears. I took her hand and led her outside to take a few deep breaths. Together, we went over the phonetic sounds of the spelling words I’d taught that week. With some coaching and encouragement, she returned to her desk and managed to recall two out of eight spelling words. She was relieved to have remembered that much, but the experience seemed to have dealt her shaky confidence a hard blow.

That night after work, I sat entering spelling scores into my record book and came across Cindy’s name. The distress in her little eyes flashed across my mind again, and I felt my own frustration being expressed in her tears. I studied books about teaching and discussed my challenges with my colleagues. Still, I wasn’t seeing myself making huge strides of progress in my abilities. I was looking forward to completing my first year as a teacher in a few months, but I felt I had hit a wall. In any case, Cindy and I had one thing in common: giving up wasn’t a viable option!

Over the rest of the semester, I felt like Cindy and I were on a journey together. I continued to encourage her every week when she got stressed out when she couldn’t remember how to spell the words. Watching her determinedly fight through her anxiety to complete the weekly exams heartened me in my own attempts to find solutions to classroom problems. Whenever the little faces looked up at me with confusion and boredom, I realized that I had to change my way of presenting a concept.

Learning through mistakes can be a painful process, whether you’re a first-grade student or a first-year teacher, but the struggles matured both of us. With time, Cindy was able to remember the vocabulary and take a spelling test without panicking when she forgot a word. She understood that the spelling test could help her see which words she needed to spend more time reviewing, and which words she had learned well. And though I was still making mistakes in my teaching, I too was growing in confidence and learning strategies to deal with classroom situations. It took a six-year-old to show me that I needed to fight through the growing pains to get to the goal I wanted to reach.