A man may fall many times, but he won’t be a failure
until he says that someone pushed him. ~ Elmer G. Letterman
Recently I sat down to prepare for a job interview for a Vice Principal position with the Maple Ridge School District. To do so, I created a chart, with a range of topics that I thought may come up during the interview. Under each column I reflected on my career in education, with examples that I could use to demonstrate my skill set. I anticipated there may be a question about mistakes I have made, or things I would do differently if I had the chance to go back and start over, so I created a column just for my mistakes. As I brainstormed scenarios, I found that the ‘mistakes’ column brought back some great memories, and I found that I was laughing out loud, thinking back to some of my career bloopers.
What I started to recognize is that the moments that emerged as mistakes also helped me grow as a leader. Each mistake challenged my thinking, required some creativity, and taught me a valuable lesson. Looking back, these are some of the most enjoyable memories, as these are days I will never forget!
Pam Becker, Vice Principal at Pitt River Middle School recently wrote about mistakes, and the importance they play in our adult lives. As educators, we often remind students and their parents that mistakes make us human, and help us learn and grow. As adults, we don’t always grant ourselves the same permission, and often choose to play it safe. Choosing the safe route may yield fewer mistakes, but it also dampens our creative spirit. JK Rowling offered an outstanding commencement speech on The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination. She describes rock bottom as the solid foundation for re-building life.
Fortunately, I would not describe any of my bloopers as ‘hitting rock bottom’, though I do feel there are lessons to be learned from each experience. I share with you what I consider My Top Ten Mistakes and the Lessons I have Learned.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of our school, we decided to take an aerial photo of our students on our field spelling out BEST 40. We had a vision, and thought it was possible. I contacted the News 1130 traffic helicopter and they agreed to take the photo. Unfortunately the time they were in the air didn’t correlate with school hours so we went to Plan B. I contacted the fire department and asked if they could use their Tower Truck to take the photo. They agreed, assuming no emergency calls came in. With vision and optimism, we thought we were ready. I went to Costco and bought a gazillion roles of hockey tape to line the field before an assembly where we gave instructions on how to line up. Sounds good right? Well the logistics had some flaws. Teachers called me over to tell me they had calculated the angle and that the photo would not work. The hockey tape didn’t stick to turf, and to make matters worse the colour of the tape almost matched the field colour. Almost everyone suggested we just take one big group photo. However, my principal and I had faith. With completely inappropriate footwear for the weather conditions, we gathered five students to help us and we spontaneously used all the masking tape in the school to outline BEST 40. With minutes to spare, we led the assembly and our plan worked. The Tower Truck arrived, no emergency calls came in and we got our photo. LESSON: Plan ahead but always believe in hope.
Mistake # 9 – Post It Note Chaos
Last June, I was approached by two of my leadership students. They wanted to play a ‘grad prank’ that was safe and in good taste. They had a vision of using thousands of coloured post it notes to line the lockers of the school spelling ‘GRAD 2012’. They wanted to do this on a Sunday evening so the staff and students could arrive on Monday morning to find a colourful and tasteful surprise. I agreed to meet them on Sunday night, so a group of 10-20 students could create their ‘art work’. They brought in music, snacks and thousands of post its. They got to work and I used the time to catch up on work in my office. Life was going well until I heard banging from the floor above me. I quickly discovered that the post it note prank had progressed into an out of control party of sorts. Students had let other students in, and not all of them had the same intention. The pranks were no longer in good taste, and many other minor pranks were being arranged on each of the three floors. I could not believe that I had essentially contributed to an event that had a negative impact on our school. I felt so much shame. Thankfully one of my friends on staff agreed to help me in the late hours cleaning as much as we could before Monday morning arrived. Lesson: Kids will be Kids. Give them the wings to fly but not free reign of the school to plan a grad prank.
Mistake #8 – Emergency Folder Updates
Every room in our school has an emergency folder with information, maps and paperwork necessary to help in an evacuation or emergency. One particular day I decided to box up all the folders with all the updated inserts, and bring the box home. The process of updating the folders took longer than I thought and I was tired. My husband looked at me and said “what are the chances that you will need those tomorrow?”. I agreed the chance was extremely low and decided to get some sleep, leaving the folders spread across my living room to be completed the following evening. Of course, the very next day the fire alarms started to ring mid day and our school had to evacuate without signs, class lists, paperwork, etc. Lesson: Murphy’s Law Exists! Be warned!
Mistake # 7 – The Big Drug Bust
Our school is right across the street from a big park full of trails. It’s a beautiful setting, but also an easy place to hide. I was well aware that one of our students was bringing drugs to school and selling them to others in the park. However, I was one step behind him and never caught him in the act. On a busy day, I saw him cross the road with friends and a big bag. I checked to see if one of our other administrators could go for a walk in the park with me to see what we could discover. They were tied up in meetings, but I didn’t want to let this moment pass by as I didn’t want our students smoking drugs in the park. I decided to linger behind the student group and enter the park alone. In the distance I saw the person with the backpack head off the trail and head into the woods. I decided I would out-smart him. Instead of allowing him to see me coming down the same path, I decided to venture into the woods through a different direction so that we would meet up at the same spot. I climbed over stumps, navigated tree roots and eventually came to the same clearing as the student with the back pack. I said hello. He turned around so we were face to face. There I was staring at a man in his mid 40’s in the middle of the woods. Hmmm. Not so safe. I quickly excused myself and exited quickly. Lesson: Safety First. Plain and Simple.
Mistake # 6 – Caesar Salad for All
In preparation for parent night, and a staff dinner at the break, my principal asked me to pick up romaine lettuce at Costco. I asked how much I should pick up. She said four. So off I went to Costco in search of lettuce. I was delighted to find that Costco has already bundled the lettuce 4 / pack, so I picked up one pack and headed for the till. Ten minutes before the dinner my principal asked me where the rest of the lettuce was. I asked her what she was talking about. Apparently she had meant four packages. Who knew you couldn’t make salad for 80 people with only 4 heads of lettuce! Now, most of you will probably think that I should learn something from this, but really, the lesson here is that we need to recognize the strengths in one another. Funny how Mary never asked me to cook again. Lesson: Know your strengths. Cooking is not mine.
Mistake # 5 – Awards Night during Teacher Job Action
Last June we had difficulty determining whether or not we should host our Awards Evening as the teachers were in Job Action and unable to volunteer their time to assist. We decided that we would go ahead with a streamlined version. Rather than having award recipients approach the stage one by one, we would call them up in groups based on the awards won. Mark Rao MC’d the event, Mary O’Neill shook hands with the students and I distributed the awards and certificates from the table. Minutes in I realized I was way over my head. Students were approaching every second, and matching them with their awards in time for the photo was becoming an impossible task. Deciding the show must go on, I continued to hand out awards and tell the students to smile. Only problem? The certificates did not match their names. Each time I whispered to the student to see me at the end to swap the certificates. At the end of the evening I remember Mark and Mary being pleased, and saying ” Wow – that sure ran smoothly!”. I then explained that our blonde haired top Calculus student actually posed with the Korean student’s Drafting award with the wrong name, etc. Good thing the camera didn’t have a zoom lens and no one noticed! Lesson: The Show Must Go On! Smile for the camera, let the students shine and work out the kinks later. Oh, and pray that Job Action will not return.
Mistake # 4 – Winter Formal Tickets
For years, our school has held a winter formal dance as a fundraiser for school clubs. Tickets have always been a hot item as the venue only holds 250 students. In years past, students camped overnight to get tickets and then slept through or skipped class. This didn’t seem educationally sound so we decided that we would sell tickets after school as a secret location within the building. We decided not to announce the location until after our last class so that all students could attend school, and then have an equal chance of getting into line. We asked one of our teachers to be near the secret location (at the end of a hallway) to help maintain an orderly line once the location was announced. We picked our PE hallway as we have cameras in this location and we would be able to replay the video footage if students tried to sneak into line ahead of others. Again, sounds like a good idea right? OK – now imagine hundreds of students running full speed down the same hallway with one staff member trying to hold them back. The video footage is priceless. Imagine a mosh pit where the teacher, Dave Jones, is all of a sudden crowd surfing with his hands flailing in the air as he is moved down the hall. Sorry Dave! Thank goodness we moved to an internet based system this year. Lesson: Embrace Technology and Avoid the Old Fashioned Line Up Craze!
Mistake # 3 – Fieldtrip Disaster
When I was teaching Marketing at Terry Fox Secondary, I arranged a fieldtrip to Seattle each semester. We rented a coach bus to travel in comfort. I did all the necessary paperwork so the office had all the student information. Students had their ID, and we were ready to go. However, on the way back home, our bus broke down on the side of the I-5 Highway near Mount Vernon. The driver concluded the bus would not re-start and we started to unload. This caused some traffic congestion in the area. Most of our students had moved to the grassy area beside the highway and the final six and the driver were in the midst of exiting the bus. At that moment, a semi trailer failed to see the traffic stopping ahead, swerved to miss the traffic and instead clipped the front end of our bus. The bus started to tip towards the kids and the truck flipped over the guard rail in front of us. As you can tell by the photo, it is a miracle no one was seriously hurt in this accident. However, when I phoned the school to inform parents and administration I realized the school was now closed and I didn’t have the contact numbers for our administrators. Lesson: When planning fieldtrips, leave the necessary paperwork with the school, but travel with the necessary contact information to reach school staff and parents.
Mistake # 2 Hot Air Balloon
While working at Dr. Charles Best, I tried to come up with a creative idea each year to help raise thousands of dollars for the Terry Fox Foundation. These included a ‘Kiss A Goat’ event, ‘Blue Devils on the Run Garden Gnomes’ and a ‘Hot Air Balloon Event’. I approached Remax and asked them to donate their hot air balloon for our fundraiser. They agreed. We sold plastic balls for $10 each, and set a target. The balloon operator then dropped thousands of balls from the sky, and the student with the ball closest to the pin won a $1000 cash prize. The remaining funds went to the Terry Fox Foundation. Again, sounds good right? Over the past five years we have raised closed to $50 000 for the Terry Fox Foundation so I would consider this a success on many grounds. However, when our event ended up on the front cover of the paper, a concerned citizen lodged a formal complaint with the BC Lottery Corporation. In their eyes, we were teaching children, under the age of 19 to gamble, without a lottery license. My apologies to the entire district who had to endure re-training on when and how to get a lottery licence. Lesson: Be creative, have fun, help charities, but get a lottery license first!
Mistake #1: Sandra & Samantha’s Reunion Twist In 2009, we began Project HELLO, helping the homeless from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver re-connect with family through Christmas Cards. Sandra, pictured on the left, was the first woman to write a card. When we found her daughter Samantha in Alberta they were both overjoyed. Samantha had presumed her mother was dead, and was so excited to find out she was alive in Vancouver. Neither had the funds to reunite, so our students and staff chipped in and paid for an all-expense paid trip for Samantha to come to Vancouver, including flights, accommodation and food. After re-connecting them at the airport, we traveled in my car to the hotel. Mid-route Samantha proceeded to tell the students and I that she would not be accepting the return flight, as she had decided to stay in Vancouver with her mom. She shared a story about just getting out of jail in time for the flight as she had recently taken a Calgary city bus on a joy-ride. Her children were no longer in her care. Shocked and confused my mind was racing. Minutes after dropping them off at the hotel, I was in contact with the Calgary police to discuss the situation. Samantha did decide to stay for a couple months and live with her mother on the streets of Vancouver. This wasn’t exactly what we had pictured, yet when I look back, I recognize that it was still a beautiful act. At the core, a mother and daughter were able to re-connect and share family stories, after a decade of not hearing from each other. They may live lives that are very different from ours, but they love one another and deserved the opportunity to connect as a family. Lesson: Find the positive in each situation. Families come in many shapes and sizes, and helping them connect will never be wrong.
Above all, the most valuable lesson I have learned is that we have to take risks, seek new challenges and be comfortable making mistakes in order to grow and learn. Oh – and in case you are wondering, I got the job! Thomas Haney, I look forward to learning from my mistakes with you!
When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time.”