Mistake making and how to move forward

Written by Claudine Lam

Not so long ago, I made a mistake.  In the moment, said mistake seemed small, incidental even, and easily redeemable.  However, I hadn’t considered the very real and far-reaching implications of what I had done.  Actually I had made a BIG mistake.  The kind of mistake that, once you move through the pain, shame and grief of what you’ve done, is transformational. The details of the mistake are irrelevant.  We have all made mistakes – big, small or otherwise.  Most people could insert their own stories of error, oversight, misstep, slip up or faux pas here.  The true significance of a mistake is what you do with it.  How you respond to it.  Will you ignore it or try and pretend it never happened?  Will you dismiss it or deflect blame onto others?  Or will you take responsibility and hold yourself accountable?  What will you do to repair and make amends for the damage(s) done?  What will you learn from it and how will that learning make you a more insightful, reflective, respectful and compassionate human being?

Of course, before you get to this sensible thinking stage, there is the overwhelming feeling stage.  No doubt this is different for everyone, and also context-dependent.   In this instance, for me, there was a lot of involuntary, uncontrollable, often spontaneous crying.  It was messy!  Once upon a time such messiness and open displays of emotion would have embarrassed me; the vulnerability and fragility of them would have been perceived as weakness, a failure.  However, in her book “Not just lucky” (2017), Jamila Rizvi provides an alternative framework for thinking about the role of emotional intelligence in both our professional and our personal lives.

“We’re generally expected to hide personal vulnerabilities in the office.  At work, we are professional people who are paid to do a job, not have feelings.  At work, we should be calm and confident, in control.  And crying?  Crying is the opposite of control.  Therefore, we reason, there must be consequences for those people who reveal too much of their feelings.  Negative consequences.  The problem with this reasoning is that it doesn’t take account for the reason behind the tears.  That reason is important” (Rizvi, 2017, p.116).

Reading this, I wondered about why control and being in control is equated with confidence and being successful.  Who decided which emotions are acceptable to express?  How did revealing our emotions come to have negative connotations?  More importantly, if adults grapple with controlling their emotions in ways that are considered acceptable, what does this mean for children who are often perceived as still-developing, co-dependent and irrational?  Especially, if our intention is truly to honour, not simply espouse, that it is important for children to:

“…openly express their feelings and ideas in their interactions with others, reach out and communicate for comfort, assistance and companionship and express a wide range of emotions, thoughts and views constructively…”  (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2009, p.21 & 23-24).

Complementary to the writing of Jamila Rizvi, in her book “Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom” (2001), bell hooks elaborates on the value of emotion, specifically within an educational context.

“Emotional awareness and the expression of emotions necessarily have a place in the classroom… Catherine Lord poses this question: “Why, I wonder, is it unnerving to weep in front of a student…Why is weeping in a classroom, though we have all felt like it, more of a threat to the mortar that holds together the bricks than stupidity, or hatred or ignorance?”  Weeping, crying, wailing, all displays of emotional intensity are feared in the classroom because they upset the hierarchy that would have us assume that the mind should always have dominion over the body and spirit.  We are called to learn beyond our boundary of language, of words, where we share common understanding.  We are called to learn from our senses, from our feeling states, and find their ways of knowing.  If we allow for the possibility of tears, then an insurrection of subjugated knowledge may occur” (hooks, 2010, pp. 81 & 83).

Curiously, the socially and culturally constructed understandings we have about expressing certain emotions and being vulnerable are often unconsciously associated with our fear of failure.  While most of us are averse to failure, Rizvi (2017) contends that;

“Women tend to view failure as a permanent experience.  We conceptualise fear differently to men, seeing it as a ‘final destination’ rather than a single point in time.  For me, failing is a one-off occurrence – something that happened, and that they’ll move on from.  For women, failing once means you’re a failure.  Forever.  We consider failure a perpetual judgement about who we are as individuals rather than a one-off bad result” (p.132).

As soon as I read this paragraph, I immediately knew why failing has always been so terrifying for me.  If I can fail at one thing then I can fail at many things, and all of these failings might mean that I am a failure.  Again, I thought about what this means for my work as an educator in a highly feminised profession.  The irony of trying to convince students of all ages that it is important, even necessary to learn from our mistakes, our perceived failures and failings was not lost on me.  Although I absolutely believe that it is essential for students to “persist even when they find a task difficult” (DEEWR, 2009, p.34) and “use reflective thinking to consider why things happen and what can be learnt from these experiences” (DEEWR, 2009, p.35) I am reluctant to acknowledge and draw on my own mistakes and failures as valuable learning opportunities.

However, the increasing emphasis on emotional intelligence and the need “to learn from our senses, from our feeling states, and find their ways of knowing” (hooks, 2001, p.83) allows me to reframe my experiences through the lens of critical reflection.  According to MentorMore (2018), the catalyst for critical reflection is often “a moment in time when you choose to stop, listen to your feelings, connect to your thinking and discover why” (p.1).  This necessitates stepping outside of your comfort zone and appreciating that “When your belly hurts, that’s the process of self-reflection” (Lavallee, 2015).  Accordingly, creating transformative learning spaces and experiences requires actively engaging with a framework for critical consciousness that embraces dissonance and resistance and unsettles and unlearns taken-for-granted understandings, (D.McDermott, personal communication, April 27, 2018).  In light of this, it is clear that pre-mistake I was unaware of my own comfort and certainty.  I thought I knew who I was, what I was doing, where I was going and why.  Post-mistake, everything became unknowable, unpredictable; life was and continues to be, infused by tension and discomfort.  How I engage with and position myself within the world has intrinsically and profoundly changed.  I have realised that in striving to be a transformative educator “You have to do it over and over again and then you have to accept that you’ll never be perfect” (Wilson, 2016, p.111).   You also need to continually to ask yourself the questions; What would happen if I assumed I am wrong?  What is another perspective?  Where can I seek new knowledge?  (MentorMore, 2018).