Say You’re Sorry

Go apologize to your sister.

Say you’re sorry!

So much of what many people experience as “forgiveness” as children seems to be centered around the idea of forced apologies. Someone who caused the harm has to say sorry (even if they aren’t). The person who was harmed has to accept the “apology” even if they aren’t ready to do so.

While these “apologies” can seem to restore a sense of order during conflict, it sends kids the exact wrong message about forgiveness and apologies: I don’t have to mean what I say and I don’t have to change my behavior.

As a teacher, I am wrong a lot (consequently, as a person I’m wrong quite often as well). When I’m wrong as a teacher, I’ve learned that I have a very unique opportunity to let students see what real forgiveness and apologies can look like, but it takes vulnerability and intention.

Several years ago, I had an interaction that sticks with me still.

The first day our 3rd period class met, everything went smoothly. But one student was absent that day. The student who was gone had developed a reputation for regularly getting into arguments with teachers and students.

But on day two, the student arrived in class. As everyone took their seats, I asked the student to complete the task they missed from the day before. There was no disagreement, and they got right to work. While the student worked, I began to call names for attendance. When the student in question’s name was called, at first they didn’t respond. When that student did answer, they responded in a negative, frustrated tone.

In that moment, not one of my finest as a teacher, I responded with a negative, frustrated tone as well. I continued taking attendance, but in my head and in my heart, I knew I had messed up. I had given my student more than one thing to do at once, which is always a recipe for confusion and conflict. And to make matters worse, I chose to respond out of a reaction based on a feeling, instead of the thoughtful response that student deserved.

Class continued and we began talking about what our course in social emotional learning and character development would look like for the semester. I shared that one part of the class would be about challenging ourselves to become who we were capable of becoming. At which point I said to the class, “which means sometimes we have to be willing to be vulnerable, to let people see our mistakes and how we work to correct them.”

Then, I did my best to model what I hoped my students would also be able to do through our time spent together. I looked at the student I responded to negatively, I said their name, and then I said something that sounded like this: “I just want to take a second to apologize to you in front of everyone. What I expected of you earlier during attendance wasn’t fair. I asked you to do two things at once and when you didn’t hear me, I got frustrated with your response. That situation wasn’t fair to you, and that was my fault not yours. I just wanted to take a second to say I’m sorry and that I’ll do better next time.”

After I finished, the room was so silent you could’ve heard a pin drop, which in a middle school classroom is no easy feat. We moved on and at the end of class, one student stayed behind to chat. We talked about a few pleasantries, and then they added, “You know Mr. Healy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adult apologize to a room full of students before. That was cool.” And they were out the door and on their way. It was then that I realized being wrong was actually one of the best ways to teach my students what forgiveness and a real apology could look like.

I meant what I said that day.

I was sorry and I did try to do better. The rest of the semester had its normal ups and downs, but we made progress together. As their teacher, I got better at figuring out what that group needed from me, and I think that they as students were able to grow more into their best selves as well.

All those students are adults now. I often wonder if, when they find themselves in situations where they mess up, they take the time to give a real apology and change their behavior. I still believe in them, so I’d like to think they still work at it and that they succeed more often than not.  For me, I know saying sorry and doing better when I mess up will continue to be something I work on every day at school and beyond.

Ryan Healy is originally from Olympia, WA and has taught for 15 years at Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm, WA. Ryan was the 2019 Capital Region ESD 113 Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year. He was also honored with the 2014 Association of Washington Student Leaders Middle Level Adviser of the Year Award for the state of Washington. At his school, he helped develop a transformative student leadership program focused on social and emotional learning and character development. He teaches five SEL & Character Development classes each day and much of his current work is centered around getting equitable access to those skills for as many students as possible. You can find Ryan on twitter and instagram @rdhealy.





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