Teachers: Say “I’m Sorry” When You Screw Up

Last night Alexandra (my 5 1/2 year old daughter) threw a tantrum right before bed. It was over something stupid–a horse stuffed animal–and on a scale of 1-5, I would give this tantrum a 4. It was a good one. Kicking, full throat screaming, hitting, thrashing, crying. . .the whole nine yards. After we finally got her calmed down (20+ minutes?), she stood up from my lap and stumbled back towards her room. Then she paused, turned to look at me, her eyes welled up again, and she ever-so-quietly under her breath said, “I’m sorry.”

I almost cried.

That was the first time ever that she apologized unsolicited. I felt like I had just seen something monumental happen–baby girl had a moment of meta-cognition and then a realization that what she was wrong, and she apologized on her own! On. Her. Own! I was so proud.

I can’t help but wonder if it is correlated to the apology I gave her at dinner. I am doing a juice cleanse for 3 days–not to get skinny but to just flush out the ickiness of winter–and I weaned myself off coffee for it. I like to do this from time to time to test my addiction levels. I had a fierce caffeine headache yesterday morning, and that was the morning that Alexandra decided that I had to dress her. This kid has been dressing herself since she was 3 years old, but yesterday I had to dress her and if not…crying. Crying, crying, crying. So, I was cross with her and might have yelled a tad. Then I got her some clothes out to try to shut her up. Guess what? She didn’t want them. More crying. Then I might have yelled a tad more. I was frustrated, running late, my head was pounding, and I just wanted her to shut the eff up and get dressed like she has done every morning for god knows how long. ARGH!

At dinner I apologized to her for yelling and being angry and frustrated. I told her that I need her to get herself dressed in the mornings because I have to do a lot of other things like make breakfast, get their backpacks in order, get Nico dressed, clean up, get myself ready. I told her that I was happy to help her, but that getting dressed was one of her responsibilities. I apologized to her again for yelling.

Let me mention here that my mother has never ONCE apologized to me. I have kept count. I’m trying to break the cycle, folks.

As I was pondering how much I love who my daughter is becoming this morning, as well as contemplating how much modeling behavior leads to the behavior you want, I thought about the first time I apologized in the classroom.

It was the week after 9/11 happened and my first year teaching high school.

We were back in school after the terrorist attacks and reading Act I of The Crucible, a play I had futilely tried to start teaching the morning of 9/11. In the middle of the lesson a student, Wes, totally flipped out. He slammed his book shut, slammed his book onto his desk, and yelled out something along the lines of, “Why the fuck are we reading this shit anyways? We’re all gonna die! The terrorists are going to kill all of us! Reading this book is pointless!”

Maybe it was because I was stressed out, too, and feeling the same. Maybe because I had just gotten Miguel in the back row to stop moo-ing under his breath and was finally teaching. Maybe because I was a second year teacher with minimal classroom management skills. Whatever the reason, I replied with something like this, “Fine! Don’t read the play. Don’t come to school! Don’t do anything! And you know what? You’ll be flipping burgers in McDonalds in a few years and we’ll all come on over and visit you! Sounds like a plan!”

Wes shut up. The lesson went on.

Yes, totally immature of me. I’m not at all proud of that teaching moment. I felt like shit that night and I knew what I had to do.

At the beginning of class the next day, I called Wes to the front of the room. He used to sit on the right side of our classroom of desks making a U shape. I remember him and this clear as day. He sauntered up, wondering why I had singled him out, and I turned to him and said, “Wes, I’m sorry I said you were going to work at McDonald’s. I don’t know you well (I had only been their teacher for a week), but I can tell you are bright and have a lot in you. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I think we’re all a little scared and freaked out from last week. Do you accept my apology?”

Of course, he did. I shook his hand and he sat back down.

I think that’s why I loved those students so much–the Class of 2003–I was totally vulnerable as a newbie teacher with them, but I admitted when I had screwed up and, I think because of that, they let me continue to teach them. Because I was honest with them, they were vulnerable with me, too, and we all learned from each other.

So, teachers and parents out there, apologize when you’ve messed up. Everyone learns from it.