Letting go – why do some people find it hard to forgive mistakes?

By May 3, 2015 Education No Comments


As a Christian the idea of transgressions, forgiveness and judgement is a common theme of Sunday services, as well as in our weekly home group meetings. Having been to a CofE primary school I can still recall the assemblies around the theme of the above quote and the longer version by Alexander Pope,

‘To err is human; to forgive, divine.’

 Increasingly in schools we work with children, applying the Growth Mindset work of Carol Dweck helping them to recognise that mistakes are part of learning and that they should use them as stepping stones for progress. I mentioned this in my last blog, about the great work of Eddie Howe and Bournemouth in getting promoted to the Premier League, reflecting on the link to Dweck’s work I had witnessed. In fact, I even have a display in my classroom around the reshaping a learner’s thinking about learning and we refer to it often:

Growth Mindset Questions

I am also someone who uses the power of ‘yet’, as Carol Dweck promoted herself in her excellent TED talk (here) and is something that my classes will call out to a peer who says, “I can’t do this!” The immediate and vociferous response is “YET!” On Twitter, colleagues often show examples of how they try to reassure learners of all ages that mistakes are fine, we can learn from them and that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about making them – after all, we are all human!

Here are some great examples:



Bruce Lee on mistakes


In fact I have also given an assembly to our Year 4-6 children on this very subject, ensuring that they are not beset with negativity when errors occur. One of my favourite elements is to use famous failures, especially those who were judged incorrectly and then went on to achieve great success; Elvis, The Beatles, Richard Branson, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs have all featured (I have referred to this great website for research) I have also used this famous Michael Jordan commercial about failure leading to success.

So why is this the subject of this blog? Not, perhaps surprisingly, even though it’s written on a Sunday, because of church or religion, although 1John 1:19 says:

‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’

 As well as in Luke 6:37:

‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; …’

 All of which are pieces of great advice. But today’s inspiration came during my dog walk, when – thanks to being a Sunday, I watched part of a Sunday morning football game at the local park. Now, I hasten to add, this was a game played between two U14 teams and was being won convincingly by one team – I witnessed 4 goals, and was told that 3 had already been scored in the first half!

The winning team were fast, powerful and had 2 incredibly skillful midfield players who seemed able to weave between the opposition at will. Just as I was about to leave, with 5 minutes of the game remaining, there was a break which made me stop and watch. Another goal was inevitable and so it proved. There was a through ball, which the defender should easily have headed clear, but he committed the cardinal football sin of letting the ball bounce! This allowed the striker to run through, jump and knock the ball past the paralysed defender and then fire low into the corner past the goalkeeper.

It was one of those moments that I have seen on TV, even in football matches at the highest level, but this was a 13 year old boy. The reaction that followed genuinely shocked everyone. His coach/ manager shouted to the referee and immediately substituted the player and as he trudged off the boy’s shoulders drooped and his pace slackened – he clearly knew what was awaiting him!

The coach puffed himself up (the boy was significantly taller than him, even slouching) and then began berating the boy not only for that mistake, but also went back to games – even in September and October, where he had not headed the ball clear and cost the team, corners, penalties and goals. If it wasn’t so vitriolic his capacity for recalling all of these games would have been impressive. Even parents of the opposition team were shaking their heads in disbelief and the other people involved with the coach’s team moved away from the verbal bashing as it became more intense and the boy was moving closer to tears. His team mates on the pitch were distracted and misplaced several passes as they watched and listened to the coach, possibly considering that it could be them receiving the verbal ear-bashing.

It was at this point that I couldn’t watch anymore and I moved across and asked a simple question, “Excuse me, can I ask what you would have said to him if you were actually losing the game?”

Yes, that’s right the defender was actually playing on the winning team and his mistake was to take the score-line to 7:1! Now, I know if my wife, or daughter had been there they would have been dying with embarrassment, but I had to say something. How could a grown man berate a boy, almost reducing him to tears, in public and fail to recognise the successes? My question, as intended, broke the coach’s thread and so allowed me to follow up, turning to the boy, “Well done on the 3 goals you scored, I loved your free-kick into the top corner!”

This led the boy to smile and, fortunately, the coach to soften, “Yeah, Jake, you did that well, it’s just – well I get so frustrated that you keep doing it.” The boy looked up and replied, “I know Dave, sorry, I don’t mean to, I’ll try harder.”  The coach, realising his mistake apologised, put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and I started to move away to get home before the expected downpour. However, the coach called me and thanked me, then said, “Why did you say something?” I stopped and considered, and said, “Because it was a mistake and, like all mistakes, he didn’t do it on purpose, and you are winning!”

As simple Google search provides this definition of the word mistake:

Mistake Definition

As I walked off I thought about how the coach had reacted to someone else’s mistake – especially one as innocuous as costing a goal when winning 7-0. This led me to reflect about how schools deal with mistakes, remembering the key thing that a mistake is not something done on purpose – just look at the synonyms in the definition above.

Whilst I have never worked with a colleague that has reacted with such ferocity to a child making a mistake, I have been in staffrooms and heard conversations questioning errors made by children and wondering whether the child(ren) had been in lessons when the content answered incorrectly was covered. And therein lies the issue as I see it.

When anyone makes a mistake, we need to consider our response. Perhaps instead of holding up a mirror to them perhaps we need to consider our part in their error? If they have a wrong judgement, how can we holding up a mirror to them help them see what we see?


Instead, wouldn’t it be better to look at the following:

  • What was the error?
  • Where did this action/ thought come from?
  • Has this error been something that has been festering for a while?
  • How have I allowed it to develop and formulate?
  • What have I done to try to re-align this thought process and prevent the error?

Surely if the response to the last point is nothing, one has to be prepared to answer the obvious why not question? Did you see the error and;

  1. Decide that it was something worth allowing, letting the learner learn from it?
  2. Decide that you wanted them to solve the problem for themselves?
  3. Recognise that the review after the mistake was more valuable than preventing the error?

Or did you not see the error coming? If not, is it really fair to then blame the learner for making a mistake – which I reiterate is not a premeditated, conscious decision, but something unintended? Also, what do you do when the person realises, apologises and tries to make amends? Surely – especially as an adult, let alone a teacher, we should:

  1. accept the mistake for what it is
  2. discuss the error with the learner
  3. look at how they want to move forwards
  4. discuss what you have both learnt from the experience
  5. remind the learner of all of their successes, not dwelling on the error.


Recognise Strengths

In doing this we prevent the error being the absolute focus, thus preventing the one mark that the child missed, even through a simple mistake, being the thing that is taken forward, not the 99% of things answered correctly. In fact I recall a girl I was at Sixth Form with, who wanted to go to UEA to study European Law, requiring ABB for her place on the course, but achieving AAB discussed whether she should retake the B to achieve an A!

Therefore, on witnessing the events over the park this morning I couldn’t not step in and point out; the team were winning and the boy had scored 3  goals – one an amazing free-kick. This is something I think all teachers need to (metaphorically) do, not only for learners, but for colleagues too. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that; mistakes happen – allow them, we are all human – we make them too, we need to accept apologies, forgive the person and ultimately do not judge them – for most of us don’t like this sort of harsh judgement of our own mistakes. Returning to The Bible, as it says in Matthew 7:1-5:

‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’

Do this and allow this to build the person; not to denigrate, belittle and put them down, ignoring the huge benefits and qualities the person has. Make this poster the guiding principles to move all learners (adult and child) forwards for the overall benefit and success of the school.


About M Creasy

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