world student day1

When I Apologized To One Of My Students, She Was Stunned. That’s A Big Problem.

Not sure what would follow, I hesitated but assured her I’d appreciate hearing what I’d said that offended her. I read her lowered eyes and the speeding up of her packing her book bag for what it was: I don’t trust that you’ll let me say what’s on my mind. The student explained that when she was asking questions about how I planned on grading their big writing assignment, I joked that she was worrying about her grade for no reason. She was getting anxious when she’d probably end up with another 95 or maybe even a 100. “Miss, I know you were just playing, but…” she said, again lowering her eyes. “I mean, I’m not that good in English and need to do lots of stuff in this class to get good grades, so I didn’t like when you said that. It made me feel … I don’t know … I didn’t like it.”

She offered another curious behavior when I said I was sorry for dismissing her valid questions about the assignment. It would take at least another dozen apologies to other students before I could decipher the reaction she gave me that day. She just stood still, looking stunned. She had no response to my “I’m so sorry I made you feel that way. I promise to be more aware of how my jokes could impact students.” Her stunned silence would replicate itself over the years in other students. It was the same disbelief I’d get each time I apologized for speaking too harshly to a student or treating them like they were inferior to me simply because they were a child and I was an adult. I’d eventually recognize the awkward feeling of a student knowing they were right: The teacher shouldn’t have treated them this way, but they were confused that this adult in a position of authority was admitting it was her mistake and not theirs.


Over the years, I’ve had students shrug off my apology with “It’s OK.” I’ve sometimes countered with, “No, it’s not. It was unnecessary and rude.” I didn’t allow them to dismiss my harsh and sometimes unjust treatment as “no big deal.” And I’ve always been unsettled by how surprised they were. “Had a teacher apologized to me ― just once ― it would have changed my entire school trajectory,” Lizette Morehead, a social worker, and lifelong New Yorker, told me. Growing up in the South Bronx in the 1980s, Lizette recalls few teachers were trained in identifying learning disabilities. So, they were ill-equipped to help students like her who struggled in school because of undiagnosed dyslexia. In elementary school, she didn’t understand lessons, and though none of her teachers had strategies to address her difficulties with reading, they didn’t outright make her feel stupid, except for her sixth-grade teacher.

“She started trying to help me but ignored me after a while.” Lizette would rely on the other kids in her class to help her take notes and re-explain concepts that didn’t stick after the teacher’s instruction. “One of the reasons she used to justify failing me was because I was talkative and disruptive in class. Most of the time when I was talking, it was because I was getting help from a classmate,” she said. As someone who now has an advanced degree and a flourishing career, Lizette can understand what led her teacher to decide not to deal with her. “She didn’t know how to teach me,” she said. “If I could get an apology from her now, I would want her to say that. Just admit that she was scared and didn’t know how to do her job when she had a kid like me in her class.”

When her teacher had been given a chance to own up to her inadequacies, she had taken the road with which far too many teachers are familiar: opting out of an apology and even an explanation. “When my mother went to school to get clarification about why she hadn’t been informed of my struggles before they failed me, my teacher left the building through the back door,” she remembered. “The principal tried to calm my mother down because she was so angry.” I know teaching is difficult. The longer I’ve been in the profession, the more I’ve come to see the role of not only an educator but specifically an educator of children as an impossible job. Teaching and learning are not neat. Both are messy and non-linear. Countless realities influence our students and us, and we cannot and will never be able to control them.

Aside from misguided policies and sometimes downright demonic legislation, there are the more mundane, everyday hurdles to doing this job well, including distracted students, periodic boredom with the job itself, and varying personalities that must be “managed” throughout the school day and academic year. To facilitate learning and encourage excellence amid these realities is a task that can fuel anxiety in even the most eager and dedicated educator. We fail our students often. Even when we give them their well-earned A’s and Exceeding Standards, we can still fail them. “An apology is hard. It requires vulnerability. That can be especially difficult given the teacher-student dynamic,” a high school principal, who prefers to remain anonymous, added that many cultures train students to think of the teacher as always correct. To challenge a teacher ― especially a teacher’s authority ― is seen as disrespectful. In this dynamic, a teacher apologizing to a student is to admit wrongdoing. This principle has led her school for five years, and she has seen how that vulnerability can make the student and the teacher uncomfortable.

However, Lizette believes many teachers don’t see apologizing as important. Regardless of whether they’re aware of it, many teachers take the stance that students are the ones who always and only need to receive knowledge from them. Because of this, teachers may not feel the need to fight against ego like others do to admit wrongdoing to one of their subordinates. Lizette’s reaction to my story about apologizing to the student who felt embarrassed by my joke in class was to comb through her memory for times when any teacher said they were sorry. Of course, she never got apologies for their inability to teach a child with special needs. Even when not factoring in that specific disregard, she realized that most often, when a teacher was wrong, the language they used to correct it was weak and non-committal. “I remember stuff like ‘Let’s see what we can do to fix this,’ but I never got an apology like you gave that girl. From any teacher … period.” No matter their level of wrongdoing, Lizette never heard a teacher say, “I’m sorry.”

This explains why so many students have been silent when I’ve said those words to them. It also describes the responses I’ve gotten from students worldwide that take the “teacher is always correct” mentality to extremes. When I taught in East Africa, I lashed out at a 12-year-old for not submitting an assignment. The seventh grader apologized for not meeting the first deadline and then proceeded to do what adolescents worldwide do: miss the next one. Yes, he deserved to be held accountable. He didn’t deserve my berating him for five excruciating minutes in front of his peers.

His fault was that he was more excited about soccer practice than schoolwork. It wasn’t his fault that I was homesick, uncertain if I’d made the right decision by moving to his country, and growing frustrated with the school’s approach to teaching and learning. When I kept chastising and “holding him accountable,” it was only about him for the first minute. The other four minutes were about me. The next day, he waved at me as he’d always done. I’d thought about what happened in my classroom several times the night before, and when I saw this child smile sweetly at me and say, “Good morning, Ms. Kendri ck, as nothing unusual had occurred, I knew I had to say something more than my usual, “Hey, Sweetie. How are you?”


I have always enjoyed writing and reading other people's blogs. I started writing a journal as a teenager and have since written numerous books and articles. My blog is a place where I can write freely about my personal interests and those of others.

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