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A Rookie Mistake

In my first term as a Headteacher, nearly twenty years ago I made a rookie mistake.

In the Spring Term, a parent wrote to me with a complaint about a bullying issue. I invited the parent in to talk the issue through and subsequently spoke to both the children concerned. It went well and there was no re-occurrence of the issue. Sorted! At the end of the academic year, I was having a bit of a clear out and given, that the matter had been resolved, I decided to shred the letter. (Any Headteachers reading this will be putting their head in their hands at this stage!)

About twelve months later, the issue reared its head once again and the parent wrote a rather terse letter referring me back to his original correspondence. Whilst I could remember the broad strokes if the first letter, I certainly could not remember the specifics and when invited the parent back in it must have been clear that I was floundering a bit. It was all quite embarrassing and I could have kicked myself for shredding the original letter. I vowed never to throw away a letter of complaint again and I stuck to that throughout my fifteen years as a Head. I was Headteacher of two very large schools, and it was not that we receive that many complaints given the size of population, but in whatever profession you work, not everything will always go smoothly. Things will go wrong and mistakes will be made. Over fifteen years I accumulated a full A4 sized ring binder. It was red ā€“ Iā€™m not sure why I chose that colour. Red for danger perhaps?

Any time a new complaint came in. I would clip it into that folder. I should have confined myself to the issue in hand, but like a moth to the flame, I would find myself poring over letters of complaint from yester year about pupils long since gone. Every letter read would reawaken the, mostly negative, feelings I experienced at the time and yet I continued to read.
I read recently that scientists estimate that some ninety percent of our thoughts are the same, or broadly similar, to those of the day before. Of that ninety percent, seventy percent are believed to be negative. I am not a scientist, but if these figures are to be believed it is easy to see why many of us are drawn to the negative at times.

It was only later in my career, following a period of absence from work with a stress-related illness, that I began to implement a new strategy. I bought a green A4 ring binder ā€“ it seemed an opposite colour to the red one, which is the effect I wanted. In the green one I started to collect positive letters, thank you cards, clippings from the local newspaper about our school and emails such as the one from a member of the public who had observed the polite behaviour of some of our pupils.

Now each time I received a letter of complaint I would still clip it into the red file, I would not look back at past negatives but instead, I would get out the green file and remind myself that actually I was good at my job and whilst not everyone would always think so, many people did.
Human nature is such that people largely do not knock on our door to tell us what a fabulous job we are doing. Many of us give ourselves a hard time when actually we are doing a good job, often in difficult circumstances.

Be kind to yourself. Maybe even start a green file of your own!

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