Education, Life

Lessons from the Classroom – Apologies

Teachers make thousands of decisions every day, many of them impulsive. It’s the nature of working with people, especially hormonal teenagers. While you can perfectly plan your day, you can’t control the questions your students ask or the actions they take, most of which call for redirection. And just like that, things don’t go as planned.

The problem with making impulsive decisions is that you WILL make mistakes. This is an indisputable fact. I’ve made my share of mistakes, and even with thirty-eight days of teaching left, I will, indeed, do or say something that will cause me to take the walk of shame through the breezeway and to my car.

In my ten years of teaching, I have discovered that it’s easy to apologize to students when I’ve made a glaring mistake. It’s not so easy when I can justify the content of my mistake.

Let me explain.

Three years ago while teaching an honors level American literature course, I let my “righteous anger” get the best of me. Fourth period had dismissed and a student had stayed behind to discuss an assignment. While giving him counsel at my desk, one of my fifth period students came flying through the door and immediately interrupted my conversation, as if I wasn’t speaking to anyone else. I snapped. As the words of correction slid past my teeth and between my lips, I wished I could snatch them back, cram them in my mouth and choke them back down.

It wasn’t what I said. I was right in what I said. But tone. Tone changes the meaning of words.

By the time I finished with the student I was helping, the tardy bell had rung and my fifth period students were in their seats ready for class to start. Even her. I saw the wilted flower sitting in her desk, and I felt broken. As I walked over to her, I discovered tears were welling up in her eyes. Kneeling down beside her desk, I quietly apologized for the harshness of my words and excused her to the restroom. Even though she accepted my apology, I was so consumed that period with the thought that I had lost her forever that I couldn’t concentrate on the lesson. The tone of my words had caused irreparable damage that would prevent me from ever having a good relationship with her.

Several more periods passed and I still felt like I had unfinished business. Yes, I had apologized, but who wouldn’t if they made someone cry. It was what needed to be done. Another impulsive decision. I so desperately needed her to understand how sorry I was, that my apology wasn’t a superficial reaction to her tears. So I did what I do when I’m serious: I picked up a pen.

By the end of the day, I had fastened a note of apology to the inside of her locker. To my surprise, she returned to my classroom in tears once again. This time she hugged me and spilled about her bad morning that had prompted her grand entrance into my classroom.

I can’t explain how precious that ten minute conversation was.

She stopped by after school often that year as well as the following year when I wasn’t even her teacher. A freshman in college, she came by my classroom yesterday just to spend twenty minutes catching up.

I wholeheartedly believe that the note of apology is not only what salvaged our relationship, but also what sparked its growth. It proved the sincerity of my initial apology.

There’s something to be said of resolved conflict in relationships. Do I wish I had never spoken to her the way I did? Absolutely. However, without my mistake, or rather the reaction to my mistake, I don’t know that we would have had the grounds for a lasting connection.

If life is about relationships, we have to be willing to climb over the wall of pride and say those words that the offended so desperately need to hear.

Pride makes apologizing painful. But the sweet balm of expressed remorse heals many a wound.

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