Q: I’m a high school math teacher. Five months ago, I made a stupid mistake. I accidentally sent personal information about one of the students in my class to a different student’s parents. I not only shared that this kid was failing, I expressed concern about his mental health. I know. The second parent knew the first one and clued her in to my error. Both of them contacted my principal wanting my head on a plate. He chastised me and wrote up the incident for my employee file, but he wasn’t unkind. He talked to the head of my department and asked her to work with me to implement some safeguards. I’m now saving email drafts and sending them at the end of the day, when I feel less rushed and have time to proofread. I apologized to the parents and they seem to have moved on. I’m trying to move beyond this, too, but I can’t stop beating myself up. It keeps me up at night and I have PTSD every time I think about writing a parent email. I’m so afraid I’ll screw up again. I care about my reputation and doing a good job, and I feel like the parents, my administrator, and my supervisor are now all judging me as incompetent. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve lost all my confidence. I’ve been here five years with good reviews and no problems, but I’m not sure I can get past this. Can you help me? I think I need to leave my school and start over somewhere else, but I recognize that may solve nothing.
A: Let’s start with your internal dialogue. You’re making a couple of thinking mistakes here. You’re catastrophizing and stuck in all-or-nothing mode. You’ve concluded that one mistake negates five years of solid teaching. You believe your reputation is ruined, everyone thinks you’re incompetent and your best option is to run for the hills. What happens when you move to another school and make an error there?
I want you to try to recognize when you’re thinking in extremes and challenge your thoughts. Try to pull them back to the middle. Play the “maybe” game. What are some other ways you can view this situation? For example, is it possible that your principal was kind because he knows you have a good track record and this is an anomaly? Can you imagine a scenario where he thinks in more nuanced terms? Perhaps he feels you’re wonderful with students but need to slow down. Everyone is working on something. The parents might have been angry in the moment, but it seems they calmed down once they felt heard. Maybe they’ve completely let it go. Make a list of all the possibilities, from the obvious to the outlandish. Then focus on the ones that feel both reassuring and plausible. Every time you start to ruminate, I want you to consciously replace your scorched-earth thought with one of the more reasonable ones. Keep doing this until it becomes a habit.
At the same time, I want you to look around your school. I bet you’ll be able to identify a couple imperfect colleagues. Maybe you can even recall a few of their mistakes. What advice would you give them? Would you tell them they need to quit their jobs? How often do you think about their errors? You might even realize there’s a teacher or two who feels quite comfortable underperforming. Now make a list of all your accomplishments over the last five years. Reread as needed.
Since this is still consuming you five months after the incident, schedule a follow-up conversation with both your supervisor and your principal. Tell them you’re still disappointed in yourself and having trouble moving on. Because you have a successful track record, I suspect they’ll welcome the opportunity to reassure you that you’re still valued. They might even share a time when they slipped up. They’re fallible and make mistakes, too.
This particular mistake is a life lesson, not a life sentence. Learn from it and try to move on. If you don’t, you’ll only hurt yourself. You’ll flee a job you like and perform well. That’s like getting one flat tire and deciding you have to slash the other three. Instead, focus on the tasks in front of you. If none of these strategies work, consider counseling. You might be able to get a referral through your Employee Assistance Program. A good therapist can help you get a handle on your anxiety and identify effective coping strategies.
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