Acknowledging mistakes is wise, not weak

Several people surprised me last week. They were critical of a
principal and a superintendent who changed their minds. I’ll say more
about these specific situations in a minute. But today I want to talk
about people, including me, who make mistakes, or are challenged by
people who disagree with their ideas.

Joe Nathan
Contributing Writer

Several people surprised me last week. They were critical of a principal and a superintendent who changed their minds. I’ll say more about these specific situations in a minute. But today I want to talk about people, including me, who make mistakes, or are challenged by people who disagree with their ideas.

Let’s start with a metro area school principal who initially ruled that two young women, who allegedly are lesbians, could not walk together in a “Snow Days” ceremony. They had been nominated as “royalty” for the event. There was considerable controversy, and a lawsuit was threatened.

Ultimately the principal changed his mind. He acknowledged the students’ selection. The young women walked together.  According to press reports, other students warmly welcomed them. But even if many students had not been positive, the principal wisely used the “equal opportunity” approach to participation in a school activity.

Another example involves a Minnesota public school superintendent who has proposed many district changes. After holding community meetings to discuss the recommendations, she changed two things. Some people told me that modifying proposals makes her “look weak.”  

I think they make her look wise.

First, the superintendent listened to families who asked for a delay in the date by which they had to submit preferences for their children’s 2011-12 school(s). These parents pointed out that the district was asking families to make a choice before the school board decided which schools would remain open, and which would be closed,

The parents were right. The superintendent listened and moved back the date by which families had to submit their school choices.

Her second change involved moving, rather than closing a school. The superintendent recommended closing a school for various reasons, including the fact that the district needed the space for other programs. Parents pointed out that the school was having considerable success, and suggested that the district move the school into vacant space that it has.

The superintendent agreed.

I think the superintendent was right. She acknowledged that sometimes other peoples’ ideas are better than her own.

Finally, here’s a mistake I made in a recent column. I listed advice that various educators offer families about selecting schools. I accidentally attributed a quote from another educator to Joann Knuth, Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. I have apologized to her —and today to you, the reader.

Knuth suggested that families ask:

• “Does the school offer programs, courses that will nurture my child’s passions/interests?

• Does the school set high expectations for all students to succeed and be prepared for post secondary success? What is the evidence?

• Does the geography work—can my child get there easily and feel a community connection to it?”

Credibility is critical, whether it’s a superintendent, a school principal or a newspaper columnist. But each of us makes mistakes. That doesn’t mean we should always change our minds when questioned.

But young people watch what adults do, as well as what we say.  Acknowledging mistakes makes sense.  So does being open to considering other views—and sometimes changing our opinions and behavior.

Joe Nathan, former public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, parent of three public school graduates now directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu

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