We’ve had a few broken bones in our household over the years and one of the interesting things we were told is that when the bone heals, it will be, for a time anyway, stronger than it was before. This was not particularly comforting to my son when he broke his big toe two days before soccer tryouts or his collarbone in the middle of ski season, or to my husband when he broke his leg doing a flip at a trampoline park. (I was reminded that day of The Simpson’s episode where all the neighborhood kids are sprawled on the ground by a trampoline with the camera pulling back to reveal hundreds of wounded youth, mimicking a Gone with the Wind battle scene.) Both my husband and son would have vastly preferred their unbroken, slightly weaker bones, to the slings, casts, and surgery that were required to achieve marginally stronger bones (which, in a final unsatisfying twist, eventually return to normal strength).
So. As a comfort measure in an actual broken bone situation, the stronger-after-the-break quote is lackluster. But as a helpful metaphor for relationships, it’s more promising. In therapy, there is a concept called Rupture-and-Repair, and the idea is similar. Effective therapeutic relationships are effective not because there are never misunderstandings or conflicts, but because when those ruptures are successfully repaired, greater trust can be developed, and the relationship strengthens.
In my teaching life, when a lesson goes badly, I can be frustrated with myself, wishing I’d planned more thoroughly or better predicted what the problems were going to be, but I rarely wake up in the night berating myself for not choosing a better sample problem or journal topic. But when an interaction – with a student or a colleague - doesn’t go well, I’m much harder on myself. Thinking about these situations as rupture-and-repair opportunities has been a powerful re-frame for me.
A few weeks ago, for instance, a student approached me with a request to retake only a portion of a test rather than the whole thing, and I responded with a knee-jerk “no.” His timing wasn’t great. I was feeling frazzled and was in the middle of a conversation with another student when he asked the question, but it wasn’t until a few hours later, after I’d left the building and the weekend had begun, that I processed how dismissive I’d been. When I looked at his test again, it was clear he had mastered the material he’d had a chance to tackle. He’d just run out of time. It made a lot of sense for him to simply finish the test rather than retake the whole thing.
I had to wait a few days for Monday to roll back around, but when it did, I greeted him in the hallway and walked with him for a minute. I said, “Hey, you asked me a question last week and I’m sorry I gave you a lousy answer. I shouldn’t have answered so quickly, because you had a good point. When you retake the test, you are totally welcome to finish the questions you didn’t get to.” He looked surprised, then his face brightened into a big smile. “Thanks!”
It was a small moment. Our relationship wouldn’t have been destroyed if I hadn’t come around. But seeing my mistake as a small rupture that I could repair may have made our relationship stronger than if I’d done everything well to begin with. If, the previous week, I had answered his question with a “Sure, that’s fine,” we wouldn’t have had the moment where I acknowledged to him that I’d been thinking about it, realized I made a mistake, and was sorry. An important part of normalizing and celebrating mistakes, both academic and social, can be modeling how we can reflect on them, acknowledge them, and move on.
As teachers, in big ways and small ways, we have power over students. Sometimes we forget to listen, or we answer too quickly. Sometimes we make incorrect assumptions about a student’s motivation or a student’s lack of motivation. Sometimes we take things personally, forgetting that our students are human beings with tough things going on in their lives, completely apart from our class and content area. Sometimes we win a power struggle but lose the relationship. It can be especially powerful for teachers to acknowledge mistakes to students. So many messages are sent in the moments when we acknowledge a rupture and take steps to repair it.
My son, for instance, had a teacher in middle school who announced to the class that he would never admit when he’d made a mistake because he was the teacher and students needed to respect what he said, no matter what. (I’m not making this up.) His rule applied even to trivial things. One day, he wrote on the board that there are nine planets in the universe. When a student pointed out that he meant the solar system, the teacher angrily called out the student for disrespect. I heard about the incident from my son and his friends for weeks. Rupture after rupture happened in that class, but no repairs. It was a miserable year.
My husband, who works as a school psychologist, has on his office wall a
Leonard Cohen quote that I also love:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
It’s another reminder that ruptures aren’t so bad. We can instead choose to view imperfections and all the inevitable mistakes we make - as members of the human, mistakes-are-us race - as cracks that let in light, as opportunities to strengthen bonds.
Image courtesy of free-images.com