I was in the middle of my third year as a teacher of teens when 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 a lone lioness lingers behind, you figure out: She has something she wants to say to you.
Though it was years ago, the conversation I had with a lingering student after the last bell rang still sits 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 of what would follow, I hesitated but assured her that I’d appreciate hearing what I’d said that had offended her. I read her lowered eyes and the speeding up of her packing up her book bag for what it was: I don’t trust that you’ll let me say what’s really 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 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. That 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 just didn’t like when you said that. It made me feel ... I don’t know ... I just didn’t like it.”
When I said I was sorry for being so dismissive of her valid questions about the assignment, she offered another curious behavior. It would take at least another dozen apologies to other students before I’d be able to 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’d apologize 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 it as 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 simply 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 off trying to help me, but then just ended up ignoring me after a while.” Lizette would rely on the other kids in her class to help her take notes and re-explain concepts that just 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 just 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 the 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 down 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 his best 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. Both are influenced by countless realities we and our students cannot and will never be able to control.
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, 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, told me, adding 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.
Lizette, however, believes a lot of teachers simply don’t see it as important to apologize. 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 in order 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 came to realize that most often when a teacher was in the 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 rendered silent when I’ve said those words to them. It also explains the responses I’ve gotten from students in parts of the world 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 the way others do in order to admit wrongdoing to one of their subordinates.”
When I taught in East Africa, I lashed out at a 12-year-old for not turning in an assignment. The seventh grader had apologized for not meeting the first deadline and then proceeded to do what adolescents all around the world do: miss the next one.
Yes, he deserved to be held accountable. What he didn’t deserve was my berating him for five excruciating minutes in front of his peers. It was his fault 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 was growing frustrated with the school’s approach to teaching and learning. When I kept chastising him 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,” like 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. He looked like he had seen a ghost when I said, “I shouldn’t have taken it that far. 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 all too 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 a landscape that can be unsafe 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 is it simply because they’ve come to accept that their own 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 we can change that. I believe 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” who resides in New York City. For more from her, follow her on Instagram at @keturahkendrick, on Facebook at @keturahkendrick and on Twitter at @HappySingleGal. Her website is keturahkendrick.com.