Kindness. Collaboratively, my fourth grade class defined kindness as “a person who is nice, polite, respectful, trustworthy, and dependable. They are emotionally supportive of others even when they’re mad or angry at someone else.” One week during our weekly Friday chat, my fourth graders and I discussed where they see kindness everyday and where they would like to see kindness more often. Each student provided similar areas where they see kindness, but what struck my attention was when a student pointed out the lack of kindness that is displayed when a classmate makes a mistake. To clarify the statement, I made up a fictional story to relate the student’s statement to their peers. Once the students understood the statement, they agreed that kindness from others is not always displayed when they make mistakes.

Having lived a ten-year-old’s life almost two decades ago, it tugged at my heart when my students said that they did not feel kindness from their peers when they made a mistake. It saddened me because every individual – young and old, big and small, boy and girl – makes mistakes. We continued this kindness discussion for the remainder of our Friday chat that day, but I was unable to leave school that evening feeling like I had accomplished teaching my students any sort of life lesson on kindness.

I spent the following week deriving a plan for our next Friday chat, which was going to be molded around a lesson on mistakes. I did not want to point out any child in particular, so I knew that I would make myself the victim of the mistake. Between online searches, conversations with peers, and various social media surveys, I created a lesson to be presented to my students.

The lesson was an adapted version of something that I came across during my online searches. Here’s how it went. One afternoon, during our weekly Friday chat, I wrote something on the board for my students to read:

9×1=7
9×2=18
9×3=27
9×4=36
9×5=45
9×6=54
9×7=63
9×8=72
9×9=81

As expected, when I moved away from the board, I heard distant giggles. Trying to be polite, the students looked around at each other to justify if they were seeing the same thing. One student finally raised his hand, eager to correct my mistake. Prior to allowing the child the opportunity to correct my mistake, I said to the students, “In your mind, I want you to think about the first thing that popped in your head when you saw what I had written on the board.” I asked the students to recollect those thoughts before we came together to discuss. When we came together again, the expressions were thematic – they all thought to themselves, in one way or another, “9×1 is not 7, Ms. Bittengle made a mathematical mistake.” Thus began my lesson on mistakes.

I responded to the students by telling them, “I wrote the first one wrong on purpose to show you something extremely important. This is how the world will treat you. You can see that I wrote eight of the equations correctly, but no one gave me credit for that. But instead, each one of you chuckled and laughed for the one thing that I did wrong. The people in your world are not always going to appreciate the good things that you do, but they will be sometimes be quick to put you down for the one mistake that you make. It’s your job, as one of God’s children, to recognize that you are a good person, and that one mistake does not change that. Always rise above the criticisms of others and know that we all make mistakes.”

My class went silent, which says a lot if you know how chatty my fourth graders are. They pondered the lesson for a minute or two, and then one student shared, “I know exactly how that feels!” This expression opened the gates for other students to agree that they, too, had felt this way before. The children connected on levels that they may have never connected on before by sharing stories of similar situations. These conversations were authentic and meaningful, and as their teacher, I sat back and observed the beautification of the social growth that I was witnessing in my own classroom.

This observation was a gentle reminder to myself that I am in utter love with my job, the eighteen students that sit in my classroom every day, the freedom of to express our feelings and emotions to one another, and the loving family that has been established here at BES. Without the abundance of mistakes that all of us have made along our journey in God’s path, we may never have wound up where we are today.

So when it comes to mistakes, take a lesson from Neil Gaiman:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You are doing things you have never done before, and more importantly, you are doing something. So that is my wish for you, for all of us. And my wish for myself. Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody has ever made before. Do not freeze. Do not stop. Do not worry that it is not good enough, or it is not perfect, whatever it is. Art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you are scared of doing, do it. Make your mistakes.

Krista Bittengle
Fourth Grade Teacher, Beaches Episcopal School