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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