“Doing your best” is a contrary little term. Logically, if you did your best, that would suggest you tried your hardest, maximised your efforts in every way, brought all of your combined ability and talent to the table and gave it your all. So why does it sound like an excuse?
Saying “I did my best” is often followed by the unsaid yet deeply felt “but it wasn’t good enough”. “I did my best” is an admission of failure for many school leaders. It is what they say when they are at the end of their tether, at a loss for what else can possibly be done. It is a hopeless, helpless expression of disappointment and frustration.
And a few school leaders will say they did their best when they absolutely did not. These are the minority that give the term its bad rep. “I did my best” is their sly little get-out-of-jail-free card, delivered with a contrived shrug, palms aloft and a “what more could I possibly do?” expression.
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But we mustn’t let that tiny minority ruin the term for the rest of us. You might feel like “I did my best” is an admission of failure, but let me tell you a little something about your best – it's pretty amazing.
Your best means you strove, pushed, fought for what you believed was the right thing. Your best means you innovated, found options to try where no one else could. Your best means you have taken more than a few hard punches to the gut to move even just a half inch further forward. You have put up with being patronised, underestimated and talked over, just to try to gain a little ground.
Your best also means you have sought out advice and expertise from everyone you possibly could, forging new relationships to help you get a different angle that might make things just a little better. Your best means you have given up and washed your hands of something a million times, only to get up the next hour or the next day and try again. Your best means you have worried about this for a long time, propped up by colleagues and close ones who have held you steady as you tried to see what else might be out there that would help.
Your saying “I did my best” is absolutely not an admission of failure – it is actually you saying “here is the furthest possible point I can take this to right now”.
Giving it your all and not solving the problem is shockingly difficult to accept for people who are used to succeeding. By their very nature, school leaders are high-achieving problem solvers. Sorting things that are broken and using their skills to bring people together are the bread and butter of the job. So, when faced with something that simply can’t be fixed – at least not right now – it is no wonder so many equate this with failure.
Sometimes it takes a long time to see the impact of “your best”. Sometimes you never see it. But remember that nothing was ever made worse from having a dedicated and skilled person do everything they possibly could to help. Your best has done a lot of good, even if you can’t see it.
Gently setting a problem aside takes courage. It takes wisdom too, hard won from all the times you did not set things aside when you should have. If the problem is big enough (and it must be huge, because not even your best could solve it) the alternative to setting it aside is letting big problems swallow you in fear and self-doubt.
So be brave. Have the courage to set this gently aside for now and step away with your head held high. Who knows what lies around the corner or how the game might change, but for now you have done your best – and that is always good enough.
Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30