Her hand shot up during a routine English vocabulary lesson. “Excuse me, but I don’t understand the difference between the words, rationalize and rectify.” How could this student not understand the difference in those definitions? The instructor realized at that moment that she had a teaching moment before her.
Later that morning, the teacher stopped by my office to share her revelation with me. “This is it!” She exclaimed. “This is why our students have so much trouble around these issues.” They think that both of these verbs are the correct response to a mistake. I am grateful for a teacher who understands the value of seizing this kind of teaching moment. She wanted to make sure the student not only understood the difference in the words, but the more subtle difference in the character of a person illustrated by each action.
We are in the business of teaching and learning. We have an understanding and expectation that many mistakes will be made throughout the school year. From coming late to school, to incomplete homework, to emailing during class, to using a cell phone during the school day, to tweeting unkind things about a classmate – all of our girls do these things some of the time. The list of mistakes that a teenage girl can make can become very long very quickly. Therefore, rationalizing happens. We might even say that the more public our mistakes are, the more likely we are to rationalize our actions. One is directly proportional to the other
It is nearly impossible to make a mistake when no one is watching, and we all want to throw a little dirt on those mistakes. We have the tendency to say, “See, there was a reason I made that bad choice.” “It wasn’t my fault.” “It was because my teacher doesn’t like me.” “It is because my laptop always messes up.” As parents, our version may be, “I was just too tired to tell her again, so I gave in.” It becomes harder and harder to own our mistakes. We tend to make excuses more often than we think.
Part of working in a school as a teacher or an administrator is developing an appreciation for the nuance involved in disciplining students. Finding the appropriate response to poor choices is an art and not a science. Each person comes to these moments of discipline or correction with varying amounts of patience left in the tank. My bias in working with teenagers is that the response by the adult needs to have less emotion attached to it. This will go a long way in leading our students down the path of rectifying their mistakes, as opposed to rationalizing their behavior. When we can simply answer the offense with a calm and unemotional, “So sorry that happened, that means you will have to ….” or “Because you made that choice, you will not be able to …. .” Recently, I had the rare pleasure of saying, “Okay, now that you know you made that mistake, how can you rectify it?” When we are able to do that, it places the monkey squarely on their back, and they will quickly learn the advantage of rectifying these situations instead of rationalizing their way through life. The difference in the definitions of rationalize and rectify in the vocabulary lesson will also become crystal clear.