Sorry, Not Sorry


I received a great email a few weeks ago.  It called me out, questioned why I was doing something, and told me in no uncertain terms that my efforts were not appreciated.  The frustration was evident, because it was from a 12 year old who did not understand why a designation (gifted, in this case) of a student gave them ‘special treatment.’ I responded to him and addressed the frustration.  My mistake was in copying another adult.

The inevitable apology came a bit later, delivered by email.  Sigh.  This was the third one this semester.  “I am sorry I was rude and inappropriate.”  It did not address the conversation I was trying to have with the student.

You are going to apologize to that teacher right now, or you’ll be in even more trouble than you already are!


Really?  Can we please stop and acknowledge that kids get mad, too?  I appreciate that some well-meaning adult wants a child to behave, but forcing a kid or adult into a #sorrynotsorry mental state does not help the situation.  Cue the resentment being stored in long-term memory.

As a teacher, I want my students to develop morally beyond B.F. Skinner and the operant conditioning of behaviorism. That’s an extrinsic, obedience and punishment schema best left to the dogs.  It works, but for the wrong reason–fear.  As a teacher, my goal is to move my students into real learning, and that can be messy.  It may take time for one or both sides of the argument to calm down.  It’s only when the heat is gone that productive conversations take place.

Now, not for a moment am I suggesting that kids don’t have bad moments.  Kids do pay attention to all the models that we give them as adults, and they also are pretty creative, but let’s not turn a bad moment into a power play.  Here’s what I do instead to turn a bad moment into more than just a game.


Take the time, for everyone’s sake.  I am perfectly able to say to a student,  “I’m so frustrated right now that I can’t talk to you.  Go to the office/hallway/corner desk until I can calm down.” While I will remove a student for gross insubordination or for lashing out at another student, that doesn’t mean I want a half-hearted apology. It also doesn’t mean that there will not be a logical consequence later on.

Set up your procedures in advance.  Let others know what you don’t want to happen. I want to have a conversation with the student that isn’t short-circuited by a punishment before its time. Moral development is a process that, like any good teaching, takes time.  It’s necessary to create a time where we can talk about authority, and the goodness and approval cycle that society and the individual are asked to create intrinsically.  Whatever consequence is logical as a result of the situation will still be able to be applied later, so the only imperative is to insure the safety of all the people involved in the situaiton.

Do not go to the zero-tolerance stalemate.  The research is pretty clear, and says that zero-tolerance punitive policies are not recommended.  Document your concerns, but  take some time to find the facts, to determine the circumstances behind the conversation.  As you take time to revamp this summer, perhaps a sliding scale for consequences, rather than the set consequences system (1-verbal warning; 2-name on board; 3-15 minute detention; 4-30 minute detention) can be something you mull over.

Learn more about restorative justice.  Understanding that students need to develop the skills to engage in civil conversation and dialogue when they disagree helps to create long-term solutions that go way beyond your classroom and into society.  And while some systems that are popularly used in schools today can help students learn unfamiliar procedures (hallway expectations, noise levels, etc.), restorative justice gives students a voice that can empower them to have difficult discussions and create empathy towards others, rather than looking for the extrinsic reward identified by Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

Back to that original email.  I continued to converse with the student, and after several honest requests for feedback, he felt better and more informed, and then the repeated apology actually seemed valid.

I know, I’ve made a conscious choice to go beyond the quick, pat answers and work towards building relationships.  I’ve learned as a teacher that sometimes (gasp!) I need to apologize.  Rather than putting me in the position of enabler, however, I see something much deeper taking root:  Respect.  And that, I believe, is the foundation for true empathy and honest apologies in a hurting society.

What do you think?

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  • CarolMadden

    Being willing to take the

    Being willing to take the time to model the behaviors we want our students to develop is so crucial to their growth. Too many times we take the “quick” way out and issue a consequence without taking the time to help students work through the issue at the heart of whatever occurred. Thanks for the great article!

  • Patricia Duke

    Sorry, not sorry
    Being open minded to listen to a students explanation of their issues and feelings in a situation will build healthy relationships in the classroom. Students today, especially in middle school, haven’t learned how to communicate with each other by listening. If we allow a down time from anger and then model how to communicate and listen to work through the issue, all parties end of with true understanding, empathy, and respect for each other. From my experience with other teachers, they don’t usually want to take this approach because they always want to be right in the classroom and then wonder why students don’t respect them. We have to be proactive and real with our students today. We should be growing successful adults not subordinate followed. Great article, thanks.

  • ReneeMoore

    Respectful Conversation


    Your post reminds us all of some of the most important parts of what should happen in schools—learning from examples, and learning how to truly communicate with other human beings.

    One of the most critical things I’ve learned in my career is that is not only ok but necessary for me to sincerely apologize to my students when I am wrong—and we are all WRONG some time. My students need to see what a responsible, caring professional adult does when s/he has done something wrong, (accidentally or intentionally) or when s/he has been wronged (accidentally or intentionally). They may not yet know that it is possible to “be angry and sin not.” That being mad, disgusted, hurt, or confused is a human condition. That everything we say and do has consequences for us and others.

    I was actually impressed that the student felt comfortable enough and bold enough to articulate those frustrations, and open up an opportunity for you to communicate about the issues. Perhaps the student had noticed something in the situation that was truly out of order, and needed to be corrected; or maybe it was just a lack of understanding.  Now, I’m an old-school parent, and I believe children should address all people, especially their elders respectfully. But they also have the right to make their hurts and concerns known, to be respectfully heard, and to get response, and when appropriate, restitution.

    These are critical skills in a democratic society, but they are not inborn. Respectful communication has to be taught, modeled, and practiced consistently. I believe this is one of the most important reasons to have public schools, and that we should all be very intentional about providing these opportunities, and modeling them transparently before our students.

  • Carla Meyrink

    Reflecting on behavior

    I love this blog post and will be sharing it with teachers as we revisit classroom management in August. I agree that adults need to model apologizing when they're wrong and that students need a space to respectfully express their feelings.

    I also think there's a need to help kids reflect on their mistakes. What did I do wrong? Why did I behave that way? What could I do differently next time? When we simply punish them, they feel anger towards the person punishing them and don't have to take responsibility for their actions. Years ago, when I started teaching, I had to monitor the detention room and I noticed that the same kids showed up week after week. This covninced me that punishments are not effective and there had to be another way. 

    We use reflection in our school (following the format in  Discipline Without Stress by Marvin Marshall) and find that when students are able to admit their mistakes and explore the reasons behind their actions, they learn to monitor their feelings and reactions. They learn empathy and realize that their behavior doesn't define them; it doesn't make them a "bad" person. And in most cases their behavior improves. Definitely an improvement over detentions!

  • CarlDraeger

    Main Thing

    Sorry about being late to this party. Marcia, I love how you articulated how quickly adults (and soon-to-be adults) move in to eliminate conflict even though it is a part of the learning process. You captured a moment when a student voiced an emotional and real concern. They squawked, you responded, situation resolved, and both parties grew. Learning is a beautiful thing.


    If you figure out how to balance the parental response to outburst, I’ll buy the book and attend the seminar. This was a great read. Thanks.