Why It’s Important to Apologize to Children

It happens to the best of us.  You are normally a very patient person.  Your classroom is a joyful, well structured place where the room hums with happy learning.  But today has been a long day.  Today, your normal strategies haven’t worked.  Perhaps all your children stayed up late to watch the Red Sox game and they brought Halloween candy for snack.  Or you have a cold and your head pounds and your throat hurts, and you’ve been interrupted One. Too. Many. Times.

And if you’ve never felt this way, you’ve never been an elementary school teacher.  Simple as that.  So if you are reading this on one of those days, you are in good company.  It’s gonna be ok.

The right thing to do in moments like this is, of course, to step away from your class, to breathe, to look at the situation from a different perspective and try a strategy you haven’t tried yet.  And often, you do.  But today, you don’t.  Today, like the green mutant humanoid giant that was once Dr. Bruce Banner, you raise your voice, and the class goes silent and wide-eyed and a little scared.  They know they’ve done it this time.  And before you know it, they’re working silently (too silently), and you’ve lost some of that hard-won trust you’ve worked weeks or months to build.

And worse, you’ve modeled for your kids that when you want someone to do something, it’s ok to yell at them.

When you’re an effective elementary school teacher, chances are, you are the sun to your kids.  They rise and set with you, wanting very badly to please you and be successful in your eyes.  Some of them go home at the end of the day and pretend to be you, holding Morning Meeting with their class of stuffed animals.  Even when it seems they’re not listening, your kids notice everything you do.  They may not always listen, but they always copy.

When you yell at your students, you give them implicit permission to yell at each other.  You model yelling — a form of violence — as a viable strategy for solving problems.

Of course, we never want to do this.  But no teacher is superhuman, and we all mess up.  So, what to do?

Apologize.

When I’ve had a morning like this, I gather myself over lunch and recess, and I apologize when we get together in the afternoon.  Or, if it’s a bad afternoon, I apologize the next morning.  I say, “I’m sorry I lost my temper with you yesterday.”  Smiling, I lightly add, “Of course, you did not do your best…” heads nod, a few kids look sheepish, “but I made a mistake.  When we have a problem with someone, we should use kind and calm words to fix it.  I’m sorry, and I’m going to work to make today better.”

That’s usually followed by a chorus of “We’re sorry too!” and the sweetly consoling, “It’s ok, Mrs. Fox.”  And then, the afternoon, the day, it is better.  We all do better because we’re recommitted to working as a team.

Being an effective elementary school teacher requires an enormous amount of patience.  But it doesn’t require perfection.  By apologizing, you not only fix your mistake, but you model the behaviors you want to see from children when they make mistakes: showing humility, admitting fault, and asking for forgiveness.

This might all seem like common sense, but from what I can tell, very few adults do this.  The first time I do with my class, the kids are stunned.  Adults frequently make mistakes that affect kids, but how often do we apologize for them?

There is power in asking for forgiveness, and there is power in forgiving.  By forgiving you (which is easy, you being the sun and everything), kids get valuable practice for the times when they have to forgive each other.  And together, you move closer to being a community of humble, caring, and peaceful people.  The kind of people the world needs most of all.

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