Owning up

Mrs. Meg
Meg Ragsdale’s Afternoon Kindergarten, Coronado Elementary, New Smyrna Beach, Florida 1967-1968


I’ve had the opportunity to observe in various Volusia schools for forty-eight years now, starting in Mrs. Meg’s Kindergarten class. My last observation was yesterday. I fully expect to receive push-back on this blog post; thanks to Mrs. Meg for one, I can deal with that.

I don’t believe we can begin to solve the myriad issues in our local education systems until each stakeholder involved models for the students observing them the characteristic of owning up to their own mistakes; collective mistakes, individual ones.

We live in a frantic, frenetic world. Times are very, very difficult. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is in denial or lying outright. One of the first things I learned as a child, and something all children who have any higher-order thinking at all know perhaps more than adults do, is that we all as humans make mistakes. Daily. Hourly. Sometimes multiply per minute! Who we grow up to be often depends on how we learn to handle mistakes. One of the ways we learn those ticklish skills is from the adults around us. When you are the age I was in the photograph above, you tend to learn from family, caregivers, and the Mrs. Megs in your life. Although developmentally they become less crucial as role-models in life as we grow, teachers are more numerous as we do so.

I believe we need to rethink how we model these human characteristics: making mistakes, owning them, and correcting them when we can, for students in Volusia schools. I look around me and see hundreds of adults who not only expect students to be perfect or close, but lie to them on a regular basis. Then complain about the students! One woman posted recently in a Facebook forum I belong to that she couldn’t get good employees unless they were over fifty. Yet, she admittedly doesn’t offer even basic benefits such as health insurance or sick days! She was particularly complaining about high school students. Literally thousands of parents are screaming about tests (in often-abrasive, rude, and ineffectual manners), yet fully expect their children to pass driving tests, math tests, ACT and SAT tests, and the daily tests of behaving in school to the arbitrary tastes and often-hidden expectations of teachers. Viewing mistakes as an opportunity to gain knowledge often disappears from the educational lexicon with manipulatives and crayons. Sure, we give it lip-service; but, if an F in American Federal Government is the result of student errors, do parents and educators encourage the high school senior to look at this as an opportunity to slow down, increase this crucial learning time, and take the class again at a slower pace? Do they take the time to debrief, make a plan, let the student know that education is not something to hurry through but a thoughtful, reflective, pre-adult opportunity to treasure? If the student is already an adult in high school? Is s/he treated like one; given complete control, including the ability to check her/him self out at will, make their own educational decisions, get privacy if they break a rule at school? No. The VCS “policy” is to call parents (even if an adult in high school doesn’t live with those parents!) Why? Because the schools couldn’t “control” eighteen, nineteen, and up to twenty-two year-olds (IEP students have until their twenty second birthday to complete public school) if they couldn’t call parents. Yes, that’s a quote. It may not even be legal, but it doesn’t matter; the entire school system’s control of students depends on the illusion that parents can remote-control children. Even adult children. Yet, over and over, ad nauseum, for years before they become adults we tell children and tell children to take more and more responsibility for that all-important demarcation; the eighteenth birthday. When they are adults by law, and in our eyes. Talk about a mistake. Talk about a lie.

Students are fully expected to “show respect” but are disrespected at every turn. By educators, parents, employers. “Respect” means different things to different people. We don’t explain what respect is, how to show it, what it looks like. People model disrespect for students all over the place. Then punish students when they make the mistake of not meeting the often-hidden, often-arbitrary expectation. This week, a teacher I once respected, highly, and a fellow poet, came onto a benign post I put up and began to attack me for no reason I know of (talking about personal things about me to the point the post had to be removed by the forum administrator). Under the post, as I became more and more alarmed at his behavior, other parents began to post to him. One spoke about not knowing why his “boxers were in a bundle.” He posted in reply that he doesn’t wear underwear and that was “relevant to the forum spec. re: uniforms.” In an open forum. To which high school students belong. A once highly respected educator. In front of students. Talking like that. Disgusting. Deeply disturbing. Certainly a mistake. One would hope he would eventually apologize not only to the parent of five VCS students he creeped out, but to all of the parents, educators, and students he made the mistake in front of. Take the opportunity to educate; to teach that we are human. To teach the we make mistakes. To teach that we own up to them. To rebuild the broken trust and regain respect.

School is bewildering, these days. Adulthood is even more so. We have to get back to the basics and we can do that without more money, with just a change in perspective. I remember something my colleague the late Carolyn Moore once said to me, and I remember it often. She said,”Oh how I despise those high school teachers who are just teaching at that level for power over, who teach seniors, adults, just so they can have one more opportunity to stick it to students, to control them, to keep them under the fist! They shouldn’t be teaching at all and I do everything in my power to get people like that out of the classrooms.”

There is a student who attends a local high school. I am that student’s patron. It is a legal distinction, she is what is designated an “unaccompanied youth.” The registrar at the high school refused to give this poor student the correct form until I went over her head to Pam Woods, the homeless liaison for the district. The registrar made her feelings plain by telling this brave, accomplished, and independently self-supporting student that, “you’re not unaccompanied. I won’t give you the form. You live with your boyfriend. That’s a choice.” It wasn’t a choice for this young woman, but that was none of this small-minded public servant’s business; she was taking some mysterious resentment of me, the student’s legal patron, out on an innocent party. She made a mistake and certainly owes the student an apology. And, she is one of the last VCS role models this student will know. Power. It is such a shifting, elusive thing. The power to educate. The power to be kind. To be compassionate. To show that even more elusive, much more critical characteristic. Respect.

Teachers, like you and me, make mistakes. On a daily basis. The best teachers own up to them in front of the students and show students how to respectfully move forward from there. This is an even more crucial skill for parents.

Hitting people is a mistake. In school, you aren’t even allowed to hit back. Yet, many parents still make the critical parenting mistake (and yes, it is a scientifically proven one) of hitting children. Some never own up to that mistake. Many wait until it is too late; when their children are adults and have begun hitting their own children or have gotten into trouble for a variety of abuse-related problems or crimes. If you hit a child to teach them respect, guess what? They will believe that hitting is how to get respect. It’s a no-brainer.

I learned from an early age about the cost of mistakes. More importantly, I learned how to learn from them. Some years ago I was in Washington D.C. and had a moment to run by the Air and Space Museum between meetings with a colleague. I was humbled to find some of my father’s NASA designs on display. One of those, the capsule door from Apollo 1, brought me to tears. But what dried my tears? The memory of my father and his peers picking up the burnt pieces, dealing with their mistakes, and moving on. My father never forgot the screams of men he loved as they were dying. Ever. Yet, he was humbled and accepted the nearly-overwhelming task of redesigning the door when his superiors put their faith in him despite his mistake and had him do that. He designed a new door which could be opened in three seconds instead of ninety. Although the Apollo 1 astronauts would have died even with the new door, my father never forgot, even to his own dying day, his part in those deaths. His mistake. But, he learned from it, admitted it, accepted correction. And picked himself up. Those are all critical, critical human skills. We have to model them for students.

When we model for children, we are showing them who to be.

3 thoughts on “Owning up

  1. The ability to apologize is becoming a dying art while rudeness continues to flourish. When is the last time a child heard an adult apologize? I honestly can count on one hand the times my own mother apologized. I raised my children with few apologies when they were little because I was taught you have to teach them to respect you. I eventually learned how to apologize to my children and admit my mistakes to them as they got older, but the seeds of disrespect of my children had already been planted. The same was true of my elementary school teachers. I was berated for my math mistakes because I just couldn’t understand and had teachers that made me feel stupid. I grew up having a great fear and hatred of math. I always cried when I had to do my homework. I overcame my disability with math by getting my bachelor’s degree, but it was a very difficult struggle. Without being given the opportunity to correct mistakes from tests and homework, I kept repeating the patterns and teachers kept passing me through year after year with poorer and poorer math skills. Children are taught to never make mistakes while adults lie and hide in their deception of perfection. The real problem with the teachers, employers and parents that live in this sphere of unforgiveness, is there is less and less grace extended to humankind. How different would our education system and our world be if gaffes could be replaced by grace.


    1. Thank you for sharing your singular and illuminating experiences. How wonderful that you overcame obstacles to achieve what you wished to! I agree. Grace. In education, crucial. Children are a sacred trust. We must be honest with them and deal with them with only the highest integrity. Even when that is difficult.


  2. When is the last time you heard an adult apologize to a child? I can honestly say that I can count on one hand the number of times my mother apologized to me. When I had my own children, I also neglected to apologize for my behavior because I was taught that “they” must respect you. But, why wasn’t I respected? I was able to learn how to apologize to my children as they got older but the seeds of disrespect had already been planted. The same is true for my former educators. I had a very difficult time learning math concepts while my father had the math ability of a rocket scientist. Needless to say, I grew up with a hatred and fear of math mainly from the ridicule I received from home and school which emphasized my constant inability to not be good enough. I grew up as an insecure adult which should come as no surprise. Despite these hardships, I secured my bachelor’s degree through much blood, sweat and tears. I also experienced ridicule from employers in my adult life because of my insecurity which stemmed from the inability to do math. People of every race, gender, economic status, marital status, political affiliation, etc. make mistakes every day in every way. If we own up instead of covering up our mistakes, then we can extend that same grace to students and children of the next generation. And hopefully, they will learn from our mistakes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s