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Are you human?

People / World
People / World

Image: xedos4 /


I’m only human.


You’ve heard it said and you may have even said it yourself.

And when is it normally said? Usually after a mistake or a failure? Probably.

Is it an excuse? A disclaimer? Something to be proud of? A statement of solidarity with the rest of the human race?

There is something about being human which is entirely unique amongst the rest of the animal kingdom. No other living creature has the capacity for original thought and creativity as humans do – and no other living creature is quite as cruel or destructive…


Haim Ginott is credited with writing the following ‘letter to teachers’:

Dear Teacher,
I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers, children poisoned by educated physicians; infants killed by trained nurses, women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.
Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.


What does it mean to be human? Clearly there is a distinction between the kind who makes mistakes whilst offering a blushing ‘I’m only human’ and the kind described by Haim Ginott above. Ginott is urging us to help our children ‘become human’ – to be compassionate. And the reason we need to be compassionate is because we are human: we make mistakes, we mess up, we cock up. But that’s not the same as the wanton cruelty as described in Ginott’s letter.


The fact is, being human means we make mistakes and we (hopefully) learn from them – but we need to know there are others around us to bear with us in our mistakes – to accept us and keep believing in us. And to forgive us.

Children are no exception. After nearly twenty years in the teaching profession, one thing I know for sure is that, whilst technology, economies, curricula and Education Secretaries change, children do not: children just want to be accepted for who they are, to be believed in and to experience compassion.

I’m inspired by the following exhortation, which is often mis-attributed to Plato but most likely originated by the Rev John Watson:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.


Similarly, Seneca (4BC) is credited with the statement:

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.


Want to be more human? Be kind. Be compassionate. But don’t wait for an opportunity – just be it.

Be human.



The person who never makes mistakes

2013-02-03-Mistakes-Word-CloudTeaching a Year 5 class recently, I encountered something I come across from time to time but, on this occasion, it seemed immovable, entrenched, stuck…

Quite simply, a child was making mistakes in her Maths work and had decided she couldn’t continue. In appearance, she was very well turned out, polite and articulate but, inside, she had disintegrated.

I had to spend some considerable time convincing her that a) mistakes were a normal part of human experience and that b) some of our best learning comes as a result of our mistakes. And I recounted Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted maxim:

The person who never makes mistakes never makes anything.

As well as quoting Albert, I often use Thomas Edison as an example. Famously, in attempting to construct a lightbulb that would stay on without burning out prematurely, he made a thousand that didn’t. Apparently, when asked about his perseverence with the light bulb project and his many failures, he responded pithily,

I found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb.

Edison’s legendary tenacity is an inspiration and many children know his story – but to apply his lessons in their own lives requires more than the ability to retell a story or quote a phrase. Children need tenacity to be modelled and celebrated. They need to see mistakes as a living reality for their role models, teachers and heroes. They need to be taught how to recognise and experience the formidable learning acquired through making mistakes. This comes with compassionate teaching and mentoring, not through red crosses and repeat exercises.

Louis Pasteur, another iconic figure in the world of Science, recognised the value of mistakes:

Let  me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my  tenacity.

As an educator, I try to practise what I preach: I try to admit my mistakes, correct them and show what I have learned as a result. I believe that that philosophy makes us more credible as ones to learn from.

So, be tenacious and let’s teach tenacity, for it is the most certain source of power for learning and progress.