As many of you know, I was a school principal earlier in my career. From 1973 to 1981 I saw to the daily operations of a wonderful school. It was an important time of my life because it caused me to mature quickly. I really think some of the self-discipline and personal responsibility concepts that I developed early on in my career were a direct result of being responsible for the day-to-day operations and oversight of that school.
One year something happened that I will never forget – an event that caused me to see how quickly something wonderful can go in the wrong direction. It all happened one Friday afternoon when we were having our very popular annual spelling bee. Grade by grade the students competed with each another to see who, in each grade, was the best speller. The student in each grade who won the spelling bee received a trophy. I remember how much I enjoyed the spelling bee when I was growing up, so I wanted to continue that heritage in our school. Yet, in spite of all my enthusiasm and excitement, this incident caught me totally off guard.
One of the first grade teachers was calling out the words to be spelled. Each first grade student would hear the word, pronounce it, spell it, pronounce it again, and then was told whether the spelling was correct, allowing them to stay in the game, or misspelled, which eliminated them from the contest.
All was going well until the next word to be spelled was “pretty”. The first grade teacher calling out the words said to the next first grade contestant, “Please spell the word ‘purdy’.” Because of the way she pronounced the word, it was misunderstood and one by one the students misspelled the word. One little boy spelled, ““P-u-r-d-y,” and was told that he would have to sit down because his answer was incorrect. The teacher repeated the word to the next little girl and again the word came out as “purdy”. The first grade girl answered, “P-u-r-d-d-y?” She, too, was asked to take a seat because she had answered incorrectly.
After three or four students had misspelled the word, I turned my eyes toward the audience and could see several parents who were about to come out of their seats – especially the ones whose children had been disqualified from the spelling bee because they had misspelled the word “pretty”. I was in a pickle! I did not want to embarrass the teacher in front of the students and their parents, but neither could I allow the situation to escalate.
Finally, I stood up and interrupted the spelling bee. I walked over to the children and said, “Boys and girls, it is very important that we listen carefully when the words are pronounced so that we can spell them correctly. Sometimes we don’t hear things exactly right. We are trying to spell the word, “pretty”, as in “Isn’t it a pretty day outside today?” Well, you could see almost all of the first graders’ eyes widen as if to say, “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?!” Then, I went over to the students who had been disqualified for misspelling the word and asked if any of them could correctly spell the word “pretty”. And, of course, all of them could spell it perfectly. I allowed them to re-enter the contest and we continued, but I held my breath for fear that we might have a similar problem with the correct pronunciation of another word. Thankfully, we did not!
Now, we are all human and I am confident that there are some words that I mispronounce from time to time, too. Most of us remember that even George W. Bush, President of the United States, occasionally murdered a few words in the English language. But, after all, he was not a rocket surgeon!
The sad part of that whole story is that the teacher never realized that she was the problem because she was pronouncing the word as “purdy” instead of “pretty”. I was able to rescue the situation, but it taught me some good lessons that I think can be applied to almost any situation.
When facing a challenge, I think there are three things that we should do: 1) Ask ourselves if we are the problem. As I have said before, if I am not problem there can be no solution. I must consider the fact that I may be the one making the mistake and I am the one who needs to do things differently. 2) Have an accountability partner. After that spelling bee incident, I instituted the “buddy system” so that the teachers worked with each other to make sure that the pronunciation of their words was correct. But, having someone to whom we can be accountable works in any situation. We all need someone to help us learn and grow through the challenges that we will face. Finally, 3) I think we need to consider the fact that words can sometimes come out wrong and create problems.
I recently heard of a man who was texting his daughter. Her shocked response to his text said, “What? Why are you and Mom going to divorce?!” He sent a text back saying that his phone had mistakenly typed “divorce”. What meant to type was that he and her mother were going to Disney.
I will never forget the day that “pretty” turned into ugly. It caused me to be more cautious about everything – especially anything that involved parents, children and teachers. If we want situations to turn out in the best manner possible, then we have to do our part to help that become a reality! I don’t want to be “purdy” anymore!
Tip: Sometimes “pretty” can become ugly!
Have a great week! God bless you!
Dr. Robert A. Rohm
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