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Column: When I Apologized, I Taught Students a Lesson and Learned One

For the Valley News
Published: 3/24/2017 9:00:23 PM
Modified: 3/24/2017 9:00:33 PM

When I apprenticed as a high school teacher in 1986 at Whitcomb High’s English Department in Bethel, I was 42 years old, not exactly a wet-behind-the-ears kid fresh out of college.

It was definitely a mid-life career change, and a friend’s wife, who was a teacher in Connecticut, gave me one piece of advice: “Never apologize to your students,” she told me.

She was wrong. Dead wrong.

Over my 25 years of teaching (1986-2012), one of the most successful behaviors I learned was to apologize out loud in front of the entire class as soon as I realized I was wrong or had been unfair.

If I lost my temper at a particular student, I would apologize to that student out loud by name, and then to the entire class for having embarrassed the student.

I learned to say these words on the first day of classes after a few years: “I am big (6-foot-2) and I am loud, and if my tone of voice or loudness hurts your feelings please tell me, because feelings are not negotiable. They aren’t right or wrong. They simply are. And if I hurt your feelings, I want you to tell me so I can apologize and let you know I did not mean to be rude.”

If I did not realize I owed an apology until after the class was dismissed, I always began the same class the next day with an apology rather than starting off as if nothing had happened. If it was over a weekend, I often suffered apprehension while waiting to offer the apology I knew was owed.

By the time I retired, I had come to believe that apologizing in front of the class was one of the most important things I could do as an adult. My apology let young people know that they were important not simply as learners who performed tasks to confirm that I was teaching them a curriculum, but as human beings whose feelings were equal to mine, even if they were only 16 years old and I was 42 — (and the year I retired, 67).

It was an equalizer. Otherwise the teacher-student relationship was simply one of power based on grades.

Around my fifth year of teaching, in 1990 or ’91, teachers were told to give a survey to students on the last day of class to better understand how students felt about the experience of being in the course. I threw the standardized group-think survey away and created my own.

One of the questions I asked was, “Did the teacher apologize when wrong?”

One time, and only one time, in the decades I administered that survey I got an answer to that question that delighted me. One student (the surveys were anonymous so I have no idea who it was) answered with this wonderful word: “Always!”

“ Always!” I felt proud that day.

I felt I had grown as a human being to be a better person. And I felt glad that one of my students appreciated the effort I had been making to honor students’ feelings with the dignity they deserved.

Have I continued to grow? Am I perfect? In fact, I emailed an apology to a relative just before I typed this piece. I was short-tempered on the phone and said a few words I regret.

I know a leader in Washington who stubbornly holds that apologizing shows weakness.

I wish he could have been in my classroom and watched my students’ faces when I said “I’m sorry.” They were always silent, as if I had said something sacred.

And I had.

Paul Keane is a retired high school English teacher living in Vermont.

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