Mistakes Were Made

from Tim Green’s flickr

As some friends and I walked to dinner in Austin Friday evening we were surprised to hear a crash just behind us. We turned around to see two cars had collided, not terribly, but enough. We stopped briefly to see if we could figure out what happened. Car A was heading down a street, into an intersection. Car B was heading into the same intersection, ninety degrees to Car A. Car B had a stop sign. Car A did not. I feel confident the driver of Car B stopped and looked before entering the intersection. But there was a large delivery truck parked on the other street, blocking the view of Car A. It was an accident in every way. The driver of Car B, who caused the accident, at least according to the rules of the road, likely did all she could to do things right. And still there was an accident.

I felt for both drivers. No one seemed to be hurt, fortunately. But I’m sure both drivers are looking at hassles as they deal(t) with police, insurance, and repair shops. My greatest empathy, however, was for the driver who would be found at fault. She did her best and still screwed up. That stinks.

How often is that true? How often do we do our best and still make mistakes? I think it happens all the time. It’s an awful feeling. When things don’t go well because we didn’t make an effort, it’s not good, but it doesn’t beat us down in the same way. Car B’s driver was likely feeling quite demoralized and questioning what she should have done differently. Having seen the situation, I’m skeptical there was anything she could have done to avoid the accident. She did her best and still screwed up.

I think that it happens often, not just for us, but for our students too. They do their best and it still isn’t good enough. They do their best and still screw up.

A colleague mentioned to me recently that in her son’s kindergarten class there is a behavior chart. You know what I mean, with the clips that move up and down based on behaviors. The children in that classroom may do their best, still make mistakes, and have to move their clip down. Not only will they then be dealing with the feeling of having screwed up but also with the public shaming of it. Not unlike the driver in Austin.

Space to make mistakes, even when we try our best, maybe especially when we try our best, is critical for learning. Kids (and adults) will stop taking risks, stop stretching, stop aiming high, if trying their best and screwing up means they’re punished. Whether that punishment is a grade or moving down the behavior chart. Either way we’re sending the message that making a mistake is to be avoided at all costs.

We stopped briefly on that street in Austin to assess. That’s what we adults need to do regularly. Stop, pause, consider the situation. Recognize the ways in which that child (or other adult) tried their best. Accidents will happen. They don’t have to be the end of the line.

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