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

In the middle of my third year as a teacher of teens, I began to decipher the meanings of their curious behaviors. When 27 youth run out of your class like caged lions, finally let loose into the wild, and alone lioness lingers behind, you figure out: She has something she wants to say to you. Years ago, my conversation with a lingering student after the last bell rang still sat with me. When I walked up to her and asked if she had questions about the lesson I’d just taught, I was surprised when she said she understood everything, but,” Miss, you said something, and I didn’t like it. … I don’t want to be disrespectful…”

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. “Sweetie, please tell me. It’s OK,” I said. “Tell me what I did that made you angry.” The student explained that when she asked questions about how I planned to grade their big writing assignment, I joked that she was worried 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 I 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. ‘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.

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. 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. “She started trying to help me but ignored me after a while.”

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 the 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. Our students influence countless realities, 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. Why not own up to it when we do? Why not give them the response a person who has been wronged deserves? Why not offer a sincere “I’m sorry”? “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 principal has led her school for five years, and she has seen how that level of vulnerability can make both the student and the teacher uncomfortable.

However, Lizette believes that many teachers don’t consider apologizing 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 the way 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. Even when not factoring in that specific disregard, she realized that most often, when a teacher was in the wrong, the language they used to correct it was weak and non-committal. Of course, she apologized for their inability to teach a child with special needs.

“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. 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.

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. Kendrick,” as if nothing unusual had occurred, I knew I had to say something more than my usual, “Hey, Sweetie. How are you?” I pulled him aside and apologized for what had happened the day before in class. When I said, “I shouldn’t have taken it that far, he looked like he had seen a ghost. That wasn’t even about you. I’m sorry for speaking to you like that.” His discomfort with my apology was so evident I released him from the awkward interaction by quickly following up with, “Now, you have a good day, OK?” He walked off slowly and, even by lunchtime, was still staring at me in disbelief.

Sadly, we live in a world where children are often victims of experiences that horrify us, such as physical and sexual abuse, trafficking, and cheap labor. But children can also be adults’ go-to depositories for cruelty in ways we find comforting. A teacher is one of those roles where an adult has been given “authority” over an underage human being. While this authority by itself isn’t a corruptive force, a culture of deference to adults with no reciprocity for children creates an unsafe landscape for underage students. This can be a situation where a student is honest about her feelings and fully expects those feelings to be disregarded. It can be a student thinking it might be “disrespectful” to inform her teacher she’d caused harm.

When I think about the many times students have been uncomfortable with me saying, “I shouldn’t have treated you the way I wouldn’t want you to treat me,” I’m left wondering if children are obedient to teachers out of respect or if it simply because they’ve come to accept that their feelings of disrespect will always be placed lower on the hierarchy than those of the adults who are in charge of them? It’s time to figure it out and, if it’s the latter, figure out how to change that. It could start by offering a heartfelt “I’m sorry” when necessary and appropriate.

Keturah Kendrick is a writer, educator, traveler, and the author of “No Thanks: Black, Female, and Living in the Martyr-Free Zone” in New York City. Her website is keturahkendrick.com. For more, follow her on Instagram at @keturahkendric, Facebook, and Twitter at @HappySingleGal. Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here, and send us a pitch!


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