This week in the middle school, I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of making mistakes. As educators, we know that our students make mistakes all day long — they forget a homework assignment at home, drop an important line in the middle of a dramatic performance, miss a shot on the basketball court, or say something that hurts another person’s feelings.
At the age of 11, 12, 13, or 14, mistakes sometimes feel catastrophic. A student who makes a mistake in front of others might wrongly imagine that everyone is staring at her. Facing down a low score on a quiz, she might wonder if she’ll ever learn the material.
And when a mistake is serious — requiring a difficult conversation with a peer, a parent, or a trusted adult, our middle school girls often need our support. It is tempting for us, as parents, to be drawn into their distress. Sometimes we want to rescue them from the pain of their errors. Or, we might actually get angry at them, even when the mistake was unintentional. We love our children so much that it’s hard not to be disappointed in them — or in the world — when things do not go their way.
However, the research on girls education stresses that our children need a different approach. Children and adolescents — particularly girls — need their parents and teachers to normalize the process of learning from mistakes. Rather than rescuing them from their mistakes, telling girls not to care about those mistakes, or minimizing their powerful feelings, we help them to grow whenever we can model grace under pressure in the face of a mistake.
How do I know this? Because this week I made a whole lot of mistakes. One of them was quite public. First I approved a dress down day to celebrate Lunar New Year, and then I learned— just one day before the planned day — that that dress down day conflicted with another important event at school. I had made a mistake, and now everybody would know.
And so, I apologized, and I looked to my colleagues and students to figure out how to make it right. I first checked in with a friend who is an expert in Lunar New Year, having celebrated it all her life, and she reassured me that the holiday goes on for over two weeks. Then, I wrote to the students who had organized the dress down day and our school’s Lunar New Year celebrations. The students accepted my apology, and now we have two dress down days to look forward to!
As an educator, I feel grateful whenever I have an opportunity to model a lesson that was hard for me to learn. Only as an adult have I learned the positive role of mistakes in the process of education. Now I believe the words of James Joyce: “Mistakes are the portals to discovery.” As our students are learning, from our words and our examples, there is so much to learn in the face of mistakes.