top of page

Yom Kippur

At the center of my teaching in my role as President of Integration Charter Schools was, “Learn from your mistakes.”

We were committed to lifetime learning for everyone, students and staff.

“Let’s keep learning and growing.”

We learn by making mistakes. Students learn by making mistakes.

There was an important lesson in there for our teachers. I didn’t figure this out. I heard it along with our teachers from a wonderful math coach who helped break our teachers out of the “first I do, then we do, then you do” approach to teaching.

That was the way “it was always done,” when we opened our first school. First the teacher stood at the board and demonstrated “the” method for solving a particular math problem. Then she went through it again with the class, “letting” the class solve the problem, step by step.

Then the students were given a problem to try on their own. 'Use the method that you have just seen demonstrated, that we practiced together.”

Cara had a different idea.

Give the students a problem which they don’t know how to solve. Let them struggle with it, maybe individually, maybe in pairs, solve it any way you can. Counting on your toes is ok. Then the whole class shares their solutions and the methods they used to arrive at their answers. The teacher guides the discussion. They discuss alternative approaches. They learn from their mistakes.

Struggle, make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes. That’s the real take away from high school math particularly, problem solving. Really. In your life — how long have you been out of high school? Really, how often have you calculated the height of a tree? Maybe one of your classmates went into engineering and has used trigonometry every day of his life. I don’t know. Do engineers even really use trigonometry? What else do you use it for? “Sine.” “Cosine.” Occasionally, they come up as answers in a New York Times crossword puzzle.

Learning to solve problems is a real-life skill.

Learning from our mistakes is a key skill in problem solving.

What did Einstein say?

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

There is a corollary skill which is counter intuitive. In order to learn from our mistakes, we have to learn to make mistakes.

“Duh,” you say. “I make plenty of mistakes already.”

Perhaps you do, but a lot of our teachers and leaders didn’t. They had been conditioned by a school system which rewarded right answers. No rewards for mistakes. Good students don’t make mistakes. Most teachers were “good students.” They got the kudos from their teachers, the 100%’s on quizzes. In red. Circled.

“Can’t wait to show Mom.”

“Can’t wait to show Dad.”

It was a new skill for many members of our team to learn to take a shot when they didn’t know the answer. “We’re probably not going to get it right the first time.” Give it a shot. Learn from your mistakes.

So many young people who go into teaching with wonderful dreams quit after the first year. They are so disappointed in themselves. It seemed like they got nothing right.

Everyone stumbles in the first year. Pick yourself up and try again. Learn from your mistakes. How many babies walk right out of the box? No stumbles? No falls?

When we offer a new course, we’re not going to get it right the first time. Give it a shot. Learn from your mistakes. The second time will be better. Don’t quit when you don’t get it right the first time.

I am proud that we built a learning environment for students and teachers where mistakes and learning were encouraged.

Learn from your mistakes. Make mistakes but learn.

I would love to say that we never made the same mistake twice. Most of us go through periods of “insanity.”

I have a favorite story that my father told about himself. In the Navy during World War II, he came back from New Guinea with some sort of tropical disease. He spent a number of months at a Naval Hospital in southern California. Luckily, his oldest sister and her husband lived not too far from the hospital. Once he was medically cleared for passes, they would take him out on Sundays. They had an aunt who lived not so far from the hospital, so my Aunt Lily and Uncle Alan took my father to visit.

They are sitting in Aunt Jane’s living room, and she offers them coffee. My father loves coffee. Aunt Lily is shaking her head. My father can’t believe it. “My big sister,” he’s thinking, “she’ll never stop telling me what to do. I’m a grown man. I’ve been to war. And still she’s telling me whether or not I can have a cup of coffee.”

“I’d love a cup of coffee,” he says. Lily is still shaking her head.

When the coffee arrives, my father lifts his cup. He’s toasting Lily. When he takes the coffee into his mouth, he’s stunned. He’s thinking, “This is the worst crap I’ve ever tasted.” He is only barely able to keep from spitting it all over the room.

As they’re leaving, Lily says, “Lionel,” – she was one of the few people who still called him “Lionel,” – “I tried to warn you. You are just as stubborn as you were when you were seven.”

When my father tells this story, at this point, we all laugh, but the story continues.

A month later on their Sunday visit, Lily and Alan take my father to visit Aunt Jane again.

Again they are sitting in the living room when Aunt Jane offers coffee.

“I love coffee,” my father answers. Lily is shaking her head. “Will she never stop treating my like a kid?” he thinks. It’s not until the coffee touches his tongue that the memories of the first visit rush back.

Our school leaders would sometimes get frustrated and angry with teachers who made the same mistakes more than once. “So and so is not receptive to coaching,” was the usual complaint. I loved to retell my father’s story. Sometimes we all need to make a mistake more than once before we learn.

It does change the rules. Make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes.

Recently I have been working with a new challenge, learning to live with my mistakes.

Roshi Bernie taught me about Atonement. I had always thought of “atoning” as making amends, a step on the pathway to forgiveness. I am a big fan of saying, “I’m sorry.” I encourage everyone to practice “I’m sorry.” It’s always good to acknowledge your part in creating the hurt or the problem.

When I heard of the 12-step requirement to make amends, I understood. To me, that was atonement. Bernie told me that “atonement” was at-one-ment, to be one with. I thought that was very clever, but what’s the difference? It was, I thought, still about acknowledging my errors and faults and doing what I could to make amends. I was “grown up” by then. I was mature. I was able to accept the fact that my amends might not always lead to forgiveness, but I would do what I could to make things right. That was Atonement.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was the day on the Jewish calendar for me to make a list of things that I needed to make amends for (and then hopefully I would get out there to do what I could, what I hadn’t yet done to make things right).

Now I am seeing something which feels deeper to me. Now I am seeing the need to learn to live with my mistakes. I can’t fix some things. I can take lessons from them for sure, but does my learning really compensate in any way the person I have hurt. I can say, “I’m sorry. I wish I had done things differently. I wish I could have found a different way forward in that difficult situation, but I didn’t.”

It is seeming now that to be at one with myself, to be whole, is to accept myself as a person who has done harm. Out of greed, anger, or ignorance, I have caused suffering. I have done good too, I hope. It is not easy to stay present to the whole of me. But I’m working at it.

30 views4 comments

Recent Posts

See All


James Breslin
James Breslin
Sep 26, 2023

😃Lovely, Ken. Thanks


Jessica Bruschi
Jessica Bruschi
Sep 24, 2023

Beautiful written and meaningful to me! 💙

Martin Krongold
Martin Krongold
Sep 24, 2023
Replying to

Note above meant for Ken.


bottom of page