Learning Through Mistakes: One Principal’s Journey with a Student Through the Whitewater

Guest Blogger: Bett Alter (March, 2022)


The scene: a principal’s office in late November.  The day is short, the reserves of personal energy for this deeply human work depleted. A student has shared, unsolicited, compromising photographs of another student with two classmates. The classmates are terribly uncomfortable with what they have seen and with the knowledge that the subject of the photographs, a friend, does not know. 


This dialogue ensues: 

“Did you share compromising photos with friends?” 

“No, of course I didn’t, why would I do that?”

“Two students have reported that you have.” 

“Do they have evidence that I did that?” 

“No, there is no evidence other than their word.” 

“They just want to get me in trouble, they hate me.” 


Traditional disciplinary processes—detention, suspension, expulsion—may serve as deterrents. Unfortunately, these same processes may also deter truth telling. But in what way does suspension promote autonomy? How does separation from school strengthen belonging? And what competencies are identified or developed by time away from school? They do not support and align with autonomy-supportive practice, competency-building and strengthening experiences, within a community of authentic relationships and belonging.


My Head of School and I agree that a decision to suspend can change the course of a young person’s future. What might happen if we take a more autonomy-supportive, community strengthening approach? Might the student tell the truth, own the mistake, and take responsibility for it? It is clear that a restorative approach with this student could not only repair some of the harm caused to others, but also nurture the growth of important skills. 


What followed: each week the student responds to a self-selected journaling prompt. Sometimes the two of us watch a short video clip related to integrity, responsibility, community, compassion, respect, or self-awareness. Sometimes we discuss our shared reading of an ethical dilemma.  We consider “crucible moments.” These assignments are shared with parents to encourage discussion at home. 


In the two months since that incident I have observed the following: the student smiles more often, looks me in the eye,  and expresses more confidence. Greater self-knowledge is evident; a more hopeful outlook is emerging. The student acknowledges the harm caused and has a growing desire to restore good faith. Restored integrity brings with it greater opportunity for recognizing one’s own competency, a stronger sense of true belonging, and along with it, if we do it right, a greater sense of autonomy. 


 I will continue to work with this student weekly until graduation, hoping that we will have supported a promising future, grounded in a true sense of dignity and self-worth. 


Bett Alter is a life-long teacher and administrator with a deep interest in the moral and ethical development of young people.

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