The Fable of Infallibility

We operate under the misconception that educators are immune to mistakes

by Matthew S. Howell

I remember passionately taking on a professional development initiative early on in my career as a principal. The idea was well-designed, the staff buy-in was there, the funding and resources were all in place; it was sure to be a home run for our students, and I was excited. As the idea picked up steam, I became engrossed in the process and the enlivening conversations in and around the work.

As we neared the date for the roll out my energy only increased. The team was engaged, and the momentum was building, pointing us toward great things.

Needless to say, I was taken aback when the head of the union and his colleague came to visit me unannounced one morning. “Mr. Howell,” the union representative said to me, “you will be operating outside the contract if your staff volunteers to do this work, are you aware of that?”

frustrated teacher surrounded by booksI knew that some of the work was voluntary in nature, but at no point in the planning process had that become a conversation. It was the right thing to do for kids, and the teachers were as enthused as I was. Caught off guard, I told him that I understood, and that, “I had made a mistake.”

The gentleman looked at his partner, and then looked back at me confused. He said, “Did you just say you made a mistake? That may be the first time I have ever heard that from an administrator.”

I owned the error fully, and in so doing I learned three things about making mistakes that are of great value:

The Fable of Infallibility

So often we operate under the misconception that educators are immune to mistakes. They are responsible for the wellbeing of many, and by default it is assumed that they must be free of error. While this standard is awkwardly commendable given the influence educators have, it is also utterly unrealistic and unhealthy. Certainly, if given the fanciful choice of being perfect, most people would choose such a path, but that is not an option.

Instead, it should be expected that mistakes will be made. One of the most powerful steps a person can take is to fully acknowledge a misstep early and often. Doing so accomplishes a number of outcomes, and one of them is to neutralize any shame associated with the error.  The next time you blunder, embrace the experience and the outcome. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Rise up, dust yourself off and be a model of perseverance and adaptability to those around you.

Be Vulnerable, Be Brave

One key trait associated with strong leadership, both in and out of the classroom, is the willingness to be vulnerable. This can be very challenging depending on the culture of your organization, but the greater the difficulty the more important the act. If the norm of your school is to maintain a standard that is impossible to meet- perfection, than owning a mistake may engender slings and arrows.

The natural posture in these instances is one of defensiveness, excuse making, and blame. These are common ways people seek shelter from the embarrassment attributed with a mistake. If one is to be an agent of change in this capacity, and they wish to employ a growth mindset, it is imperative that they become vulnerable and honest. This act alone requires great bravery, whether it is with a classroom full of students, a staff or an entire school district; the courage to stand up with complete responsibility is extremely scary and refreshingly powerful.

Learn to Laugh It Off

I remember watching my grandmother eat spaghetti later in her life. Her hands were shaky, and the long strands of pasta made for an interesting dinner selection to say the least. As she painstakingly lifted the fork to her lips she was laughing aloud.

“What’s so funny grandma,” I asked. “You are getting sauce all over the place.”

man laughingShe looked at me with a glimmer in her eyes and said, “If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at?”

This lesson she shared has been an endless gift to me over time. When mistakes arise, seek to find the humor in the moment. Clearly, not every problem can be met with a jovial response, but those instances that can, should be met with laughter.

Laughing at a simple snag, or the impending doom associated with fallout from potential concerns, is an exhibition of grace under pressure. Laughter will bring about elevated levels of serotonin in trying situations, as well as an overall sense of happiness and ease. If you give yourself permission to laugh through difficult times you will model this behavior for those around you, allowing for mistakes to become tools for learning and growth.

Incorporating mistakes into the fabric of our work is crucial to our success as educators. The ability to do so will support actionable growth and sustainable development.

As for the professional development initiative we had started, it took some creative problem solving, but we were able to find success with the program. The final product was not what we originally designed. However, we developed critical thinking skills and flexibility which became the hallmark of our team. If we hadn’t made mistakes in the process and owned them, that would have never happened. There is no such thing as perfect. Not now, not ever.

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