Monday, June 15, 2009

52 Teachers, 52 Lessons #20: Apologize

This week's entry comes from teachin', who teaches sixth grade Language Arts at an urban school. Reading this makes me think a lot about my students, who have serious issues with the idea of apologizing for anything. It's absolutely worth the read.

“Everyone makes mistakes. What matters is what you do afterward.” That’s something a colleague of mine told me years ago in a former career. The moment she said it, something clicked. The idea resonated with me. Of course! What a simple idea, but how critical! It’s stuck with me ever since, and it defines one of the most important concepts in how I interact with students.

When I mess up, I apologize.

It’s a little thing, and one that many of you are probably thinking, “Um, duh. That’s not news.” I hope that’s what you’re thinking, honestly, because in the two years I’ve been teaching, I’ve found that far too many teachers don’t apologize to kids. Not ever.

I’ve heard people say things like, “Well, even if they didn’t deserve it for THAT [that being the incident that caused a conflict between teacher and student], they probably deserve it for something else.” Wow. Really? How cool with it would we be if a police officer pulled us over for speeding when we weren’t, issued a ticket, and then refused to retract it, saying that we’d probably been speeding at some point and so deserved it for that? My guess is no one would be okay with it. My guess is we’d be calling lawyers and the press, filled with righteous indignation and informing everyone around.

Kids don’t do that. They can’t do that. Some of them will go to other people, whether parents or a teacher they trust, and tell their side of the story, hoping for sympathy and justice, and some of those adults will then pursue it back to the source, but not all.

I’ve also heard people say things like, “When you apologize, you lose power.” Uh, no, no, you don’t. When you apologize, kids see you as a real person who sees them as real people, and they respect you MORE for admitting you screwed up. At least that’s how it’s worked for me, every. single. time. Even kids I don’t really know.

Two examples. Early in the year I saw an eighth grader I didn’t know say something really inappropriate to a girl. I stopped him to address the situation, but because I didn’t know his name and he was almost past me, I stopped him by putting my hand on his arm. Shouldn’t have done it, which he told me in no uncertain terms. Now, I could have escalated that as a disrespect issue (ooh, boy, was his language disrespectful), but I WAS THE ONE WHO’D STARTED IT. How can you punish someone for something you started? So I told him he was right, that I shouldn’t have touched him, and I was sorry. He fell all over himself apologizing for having snapped at me and for what he’d said to the girl, then stumbled off to class (literally – he tripped over his own feet at one point), looking completely bewildered.

A few months ago, I caught two boys in the hall hitting each other. They’re sixth graders from the other sixth grade team – I recognized them, but didn’t know them. Reamed them and took them to admin. But there was really no need for me to yell, and I felt bad, so the next day I found them and apologized. I said that their behavior had been inappropriate and I wasn’t sorry that I’d called them out on it, but I’d done it badly. I said I wouldn’t want to be yelled at like that, and so I was sorry that I’d yelled at them like that. They both smiled and said it was cool, and from then on, those two behaved perfectly in the hallway by my classroom.

I could give countless more examples (I manage to screw up in one way or another pretty frequently…), but they’re all much the same: I do something wrong; I apologize to kid in question; kid in question gets over it and is closer to me than ever.

Two words: I’m sorry. They seem so small, but they’re some of the biggest words around. What a great lesson to teach a kid – that when people mess up, they apologize. How better to teach it than by example?

Read more about this project here or add the 52 teachers 52 lessons tag to your favorites. Email your entries to teachforeverATgmailDOTcom. Week 21 is scheduled for next Monday, June 22nd.