By Mrs. Cindi Gibbs-Wilborn, Head of School, Beauvoir, The National Cathedral Elementary School
During Beauvoir’s first Parents Association Meeting of the year, I shared that I have a special sign hanging on my office door for all visitors to see that states We All Make Mistaks. It was hand painted by one of my former students who knew the importance of mistakes and their relationship to life lessons learned. The sign’s prominence on my door is definitely not a mistake. I want everyone who enters to be reminded that missteps are a critical part of the learning process, and growth and development are enriched through the process of trial and error. Through our mistakes, we are able to challenge ourselves to learn to do things differently, and it motivates us to try unique approaches to problem solving. In fact, research shows that learning from our lapses in judgment can enhance wisdom, judgment, creativity, effort, and resilience, among many other strengths.
Last week, I was acutely reminded of this when a mother dropped by with her child in the morning as our school day began. When the two walked into my office, the mother was carrying a small, beautiful, silver, etched Beauvoir bowl in her hands. When I looked closer, it was identical to one that I kept on my file cabinet, and I was startled to see that she had one just like it.
When I looked at the mother’s face, I noticed that she wasn’t exactly smiling. She looked puzzled and quickly spoke up, “Hi, Mrs. Gibbs-Wilborn. I found this silver bowl in our laundry room last night and I am not quite sure how it got there. It does not belong to us.” Her child was standing behind her, looking warily at me, and so I decided to invite them both into my office to chat. I thanked the child for returning the bowl and expressed how very special it was to me. I then looked over to my file cabinet to see if my bowl was still on the file cabinet. It was missing.
We now had a problem. For the next 15 minutes, I tried unsuccessfully to ask the child how my bowl ended up in the family laundry room. “I don’t know” was the first cautious reply. I was then given several longer responses, including “Maybe my friend came over for a play date and had it in a backpack. Maybe when the backpack was opened it fell out and then got into the laundry room…” The mother and I often traded silent “nods” as we desperately tried to get the full truth. At one point, the child said, “Well, I don’t think I took it.” My suspicions only grew.
Finally, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to get an accurate story and so I resorted to another well-known tactic, the “sit-with-it” approach. Send the child away from the office to begin the day in class and ask the child to return when s/he is certain that the full truth is ready to be shared and discussed. I was confident that the student would return later that day, unable to live with the uneasiness of the morning conversation, ready to disclose everything.
Later that afternoon, as I prepared to check in with the student, I checked my email and found a message from the child’s mother (some language has been edited to protect the privacy of the student, with permission to share this story):
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and kind conversation with our child this morning. I owe you and especially my child an apology as it turns out. Seems the cup was a gift to my husband after all! So, he did in fact put it on top of the dryer as our child assumed. Lesson learned on my part to not jump so quickly to certain conclusions. My husband will stop by sometime to retrieve it. Thank you again for being so very deliberate and supportive this morning. So sorry for the unnecessary drama.
I quickly jumped up from my desk to look around my office again. This can’t be right! How could my Beauvoir bowl also be missing? As I rounded the corner of my office to look on my file cabinet again, I saw it there. Hidden behind my favorite orchid was the silver bowl, tucked away where only the sharpest eyes could find it. I imagine the cleaning crew may have slid it over when they were dusting the furniture and it never made its way back to the front of the cabinet. The student had been telling the truth the entire time! I immediately ran to the child’s classroom, found a private space to talk, and shared the good news, “The mystery has been solved! Your dad said the bowl belonged to him.” Not only was I met with a fist pump, but it was followed by an exhilarating, “Yes, I knew it!!”
I also knew I also needed to share one more thing before I left the classroom. “I owe you an apology,” I said. “Adults make mistakes too and I was wrong for not believing you this morning. I am so sorry.” I was quickly forgiven (I think this student was just incredibly relieved to have cleared up all the confusion that led up to this), and the day ended with smiles for everyone.
Last week’s incident was an unforgettable teachable moment for me as I was reminded of how important it is to be mindful of three critical lessons we can often forget in the busy life of schools:
1. Partnership is a two-way street between school and home.
There are often times families might feel that school administration is an adversary, and when difficult conversations need to take place, there is fear that the outcomes will scar a child or family for life. I have always told my parents that our school is the absolute best place to make mistakes so that children can grow and learn from them. If children are not making mistakes, in my opinion, then we need to create situations where they can safely do so and rebound with their dignity and emotional well-being intact. I was so proud of the mother who came in with her child to own a potential mistake, and partnered with me from start to finish, as we both supported one another. I wish all schools would create environments where this trust is evident.
2. Adults will make mistakes and should model what healthy ownership looks like.
I loved the outcome of this story, for it demonstrated to children what they don’t often realize: adults make mistakes, too! We were able to walk this through from start to finish and model what courageous apologies look like, even when it might be challenging to admit your error. Children need to see more of this, for we are the examples they will follow.
3. Students need to be heard and their stories carefully considered.
I cringe when I think about the number of children (and adults) who never have a chance to share their full story because they are not believed, and the consequences that follow. This certainly could have been the case for this child that day, had the unusual mystery of the silver bowl never been solved. We would benefit from slowing down and truly listening to the children, for we might just learn something about them and ourselves.
I sure did.
Thanks so much for the trusting partnership on behalf of your child.