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The Importance Of Saying “I’m Sorry” To Students

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I am human. I sometimes have bad days, or display a short temper in the classroom. I try to keep in mind The Best Piece Of Classroom Management Advice I’ve Ever Read (Will what I am about to do or say bring me closer or will it push me away farther from the person with whom I am communicating?), but sometimes don’t remember in time. When that happens, I try to remember to say:

“I’m sorry.”

Actually, I try to remember to say more than that, and the best description of the formula I try to use comes from an article about how nurses should make apologies to patients (The power of apology: how saying sorry can leave both patients and nurses feeling better). The writer uses the description:

“regret, reason and remedy”

For example, today I was a bit sharp with two students who were paired-up to do some work in my mainstream ninth-grade English class, but, instead, were just sitting there while everyone else in class was focusing on the task at hand — taking turns reading a passage to one another. A few minutes later I came back to them and simply said, “I’m sorry I barked at you earlier. You’re both excellent students, and I was frustrated that you weren’t doing what I had asked you to do. I could have said so in a better way, and I’ll try to show more patience in the future.”

It was, in effect, a use of the “regret, reason, and remedy” formula — though I hadn’t actually read that article until I started doing a little research later today on the Web about saying “I’m sorry.”

I find that saying sincere “I’m sorry’s” in this way can go a long way in strengthening my relationships with students, and using that kind of three part formula can help communicate that sincerity. I don’t feel a need to extract any kind of admission of fault from the student because I’m just taking responsibility for my own behavior.

These “I’m sorry’s,” I think (hope), can also act as models for students on how they might consider acting in multiple situations. I’m not sure how many adults in the world they see apologizing — especially apologizing to young people.

What has been your experience saying “I’m sorry” to students?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

12 Comments

  1. Another phrase that I have found to be very powerful in building relationships with students is “I don’t know.” Often time teachers feel that they can not let students know that they do not know the answer. By showing that you are a learner you model the process of being a life long learner and this allows students to see you in a new light.

    • I completely agree with you. I used to get red in front of my students becasuse i didn’t know the meaning of some words, now, after 25 years teaching and with a little bit of alzeitmer and less energy, i tell them i’m not a dictionary but we have a good one in class. i like what you say about the teacher being a learner. thanks

  2. I agree that basic politeness and respect are very much appreciated by students, all the more because they (judging by the kids’ reactions) are not necessarily something kids have learned to expect. Similarly, I’ve learned that even when essentially giving orders, saying “please” creates a more respectful and collegial atmosphere within my classroom, as in “Please read Chapter 15 tonight for homework.”

    One of my most awkward moments as an advisor came when a fellow teacher came to me complaining about lack of respect by one of my advisees. But it turned out the student also felt a lack of respect. The teacher felt that students needed to show respect for teachers by doing as they were told regardless of whether or not the word “please” was used, while the student felt that the teacher needed to show respect for students by saying “please.” The teacher wanted me to support her and upbraid my advisee, but I secretly felt my advisee had a point, that you earn respect by being respectful. But how to tell that to my colleague?!

  3. I have said I’m sorry many times to students, but don’t forget that it is just as powerful with parents ;)

  4. Thanks for the post. Saying sorry to kids is so important.

    Teachers have daily opportunities to hear from good kids who have suffered mistreatment. Saying sorry is the least we can do to acknowledge the respect that kids deserve.

    Sorry is a cornerstone in my classroom. Sorry from the teacher puts the students in their place as the most important people in the room. I suspect a lot of teachers have learned to say sorry to kids, it just makes sense.

  5. Larry,
    I had a similar situation in my classroom. I have a single student that kept pushing and pushing until I lashed out at him verbally. I ended up having to call an administrator to have him removed from class because he was being such a distraction. When he left, I apologized to the rest of my class for my outburst and the responses I received from them were astounding. They all told me that they understood why I did what I did and many of them said “What took you so long?” Sorry helped to show them a regular side of me and I think it improved our relationships. I love that class. :)

  6. Larry, I love your thoughts here. In the classroom I try to practice and celebrate the expectation and demonstration of respect. If that means an occasional “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know” or even “I didn’t know that…” all the better. It brings to mind my favorite book for 2009 Kristen Olsen’s “Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy of Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture”. It brings in to focus the moments/words that, unintentionally and all too often intentionally, wound. We wound our students and ourselves. Ms. Olsen also talks about how we can heal.
    I am troubled and perplexed by some of the outright hostility and humiliation teachers bring upon their students in the classroom. I address this continually.
    Finally, I have to help teachers and I.A.s remember it is not personal; that students are not, for the most part, deliberately defiant and disrespectful and other things are often at play. I have to remind my middle school staff that some of these students have never had the appropriate behavior modeled for them and it is up to us to do that. Consistently. It took almost half a school year to bring a seemingly recalcitrant and surly student around to the niceties of “small talk”. Eventually, this student greeted me with an authentic “Hi, how are you doing?” greeting beginning a pleasant and calming conversation in the middle of a busy day.

  7. I learned 12 years ago from one of my more difficult students a powerful lesson about taking ownership of my actions as the adult in the classroom while realizing that my students are still kids. His name was Jason and he was talking to the group of students he was working with when I overheard him say, “The thing I like about Mr. Lindsay is that if you get in trouble one day, the next day it’s like it didn’t happen. He doesn’t hold grudges.” I learned a powerful lesson from Jason. A lesson I share with as many new teachers as I can. Things like sincere apologies, admitting when I don’t know an answer or if I’m wrong, and not holding a grudge are all critical aspects of a positive, strong teacher and student relationship. These simple things really say “I respect you as a student and as a person.” Teachers who find appropriate ways to show respect, get respect. As my mentor once said, “Andy, you are their teacher, not their buddy. They have enough buddies. You need to show you care, but as their teacher not their buddy. Model the behavior you want from the students.”

  8. We as teachers sometimes do wrong to our students unintentionally. Saying “I’m sorry” can have healing effects when harm is done.

  9. I’ve learned that if I mess up in public, I need to apologize in public. This means that if the whole class hears me disrepect a single student, the whole class has to hear my apology to that student.
    Students learn what they can expect from me by watching how I relate to others, and fostering good relationships “in the open” helps my relationships with all my students.

  10. I was looking this up after feeling extremely bad about cussing out a student who cussed me out. She walked out my door at the end of the day after saying many insults to me and then finally on her way out said ” F you” I responded back with ” F you too” this was way out of my element. I really should of just brushed it off, but my school is very difficult and I am on the regular getting cussed out by students. I brush it off most of the time, but the day was long, I was injured and in pain and was heated up from the behavior in my classroom.

  11. Keith, I recognize the feeling of being very upset when I lost it when dealing with a difficult student. I felt ashamed of myself, and mad at myself, too.

    However, the next day, when I apologized for losing my cool, was one of the most powerful moments of my teaching career. I wrote about it on my blog, at http://katenonesuch.com/2012/08/08/im-sorry/

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