“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” -Rita Mae Brown
This past week, I lived through one of my worst nightmares in the workplace. Fortunately, I can report that everyone has emerged on the other side relatively unscathed, but it is hard for me to stop rewinding and replaying the situation in my mind, inserting the potential alternate endings.
When you live with or work with children, sometimes you live in a world of worst-case scenarios. This is what prompts us to cover electrical sockets so toddlers won’t put their wet, sticky fingers inside; to use baby gates and childproof locks; to keep children close by our sides near roadways and in crowds. These are all good instincts for many people, but for many others, it’s conditioning and societal pressure that leads us in these directions. When it comes to safety in group care situations for children, we’re often doing what we’re doing because we learned from the mistakes of others. With many policies and practices, we’re doing what we have been told and taught and regulated to do. And when it comes to safety in group care settings, we adhere to certain protocol even though we might as individuals choose to do things differently in a different setting (at home, say, with our own children) because we need to not only follow certain steps to protect children but also to protect ourselves. The responsibility of caring for other people’s children is a very heavy weight.
When I first accepted my current position, four years ago, a friend of mine who also works in the field of early care and education told me that she was scared for me, that she didn’t want me to do this job, caring for other people’s infants and toddlers. Not because, she emphasized, she thought I couldn’t do it or wouldn’t be good at it, but because there were too many things that could go wrong in the blink of an eye. Careers and lives have been ruined in infant care (I have seen it firsthand, where cases of SIDS are concerned). At the time, I told her, “This is exactly why I have to take this job! Because I am going to do things properly, in a way that children and families deserve.”
And I do things properly. Slowly and carefully, with respect for children and families, with respect for all of the rules and regulations in our state, and with respect to what we understand to be “best practice” at this time. I spend time making sure that my assistants not just know but also understand why we do things the way that we do and I try to empower them to explain to families why, in a group care setting, certain policies are not choices but hard, fast rules.
This is not a story about SIDS, thankfully. I won’t go into detail about the mistake in question because it was not my mistake, not in the moment that it happened. I had not yet gotten to work that day and my assistant, who has had the responsibility of opening the infant program for four years, made a regrettable decision. She told me about it as soon as I arrived at work and my heart immediately sank to the floor. My mind immediately began processing the situation, listing what steps I would need to take to deal with it.
As the lead in our program, I take ultimate responsibility for every mistake that is made in my classroom. I have spent this entire week thinking about how I could have prevented this incident from happening. I should have trained my assistant “better”. I should have trained our families “better”. I should have been there. I should have honed my psychic abilities to anticipate and prevent all possible contingencies! On some level, I understand that mistakes do happen. Big mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Sometimes life-altering mistakes. Sometimes I even believe that mistakes happen for a reason and that what really matters is how we handle it and move forward from that place. I will be honest, however, and say that this is really hard for me. It’s really hard to stop beating myself up, to stop being angry with my assistant, and to stop being paranoid and go back to being mindful and intentional and appropriately cautious.
One thing that I can do to move towards a more positive frame of mind is to look at what was done right, in addressing and “fixing” this mistake, and what growth it has prompted (generally, things that are scary and uncomfortable are leading us towards growth and development).
Prompted by what was done wrong, here is what was done right:
We owned the mistake. As soon as I had collected all available information on what had transpired, I informed my supervisor and began phoning parents. This was not easy. (I wanted to give into my anxiety attack, throw up, and go to bed.) One parent that I called was (justifiably) furious and the conversation that ensued required every ounce of humanity and professionalism I possess. I was honest, calm, apologetic, and proactive (“Here is what we are going to do and here is what you are going to do…”). Honesty was, as always, our saving grace.
We had a plan. As soon as I had an understanding of what had happened, I saw things that needed to be changed and we changed them that day. Not all of the changes were easy to implement and not all of them will be easy to maintain, but they were necessary both to keep this from happening again and to let the families in question know that we take this seriously and we take responsibility for it.
We worked together. My supervisor, our executive director, and myself collaborated on what steps needed to be taken to prevent this from happening again. We supported each other in communicating with the families and with my assistant. We also helped one another in processing and reflecting on the events so that we could learn from what happened. We didn’t point fingers or assign blame or attempt to hide from what had transpired.
In light of this mistake, I can see highlighted other changes that need to be made in the weeks ahead. I have more training to do with my staff and I need to look at our communication and make sure that the points that need hearing are being heard. For this mistake to have happened, I dropped the ball somewhere along the way with my assistant and I need to make sure that I am doing everything I can to help her be successful in her job. We got too complacent. We think we know what high-quality care looks like, but this is what I know: it looks like working as hard as you possibly can to do the right thing every single time. Even when you’re tired. Even when you’re stressed. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it’s not the most efficient way. Even when your mind demands to be elsewhere. We owe this to the families that entrust us with their babies.