How to Apologize to Your Students

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am a sixth-grade student teacher. Because I attended your conference last summer, I am the only adult at my urban school who doesn’t yell all day long, every day. It’s been amazing. That was, until yesterday. I was with a sub when my cooperating teacher was out. The students got out of control because the work left for them was three grade levels too difficult. I lost it and yelled at them – a lot. They had never heard me yell, and they did what I said, but they acted very hurt and/or angry the rest of the day. What do I do when I see them after the weekend? I have been asking the other teachers and everyone says not to apologize. What do you think? -Brad, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Dear Brad,

In my first two years of teaching in two different urban schools, the schools’ principals both gave me identical advice:

Don’t smile ‘til Christmas.

The idea that kids in urban environments are different than other kids: that these kids need to be yelled at, that these kids need to be scared into learning, that you can’t show yourself to be human or show any weakness with these kids: that idea is the most classist, wrongheaded, and just scientifically incorrect opinion about kids that a person can have.

And, if it so happens that almost every kid in that building is black (as was the case in both of those buildings) or Latino, or Hmong, or Appalachian, that opinion is the most horrifyingly racist opinion you can have about a group of people: that their brains don’t work until they are scared into functioning. This idea is the great unspoken darkness that overwhelms so many schools across our country.

So yes, apologize.

The way you handle this will be incredibly important in your success level with these kids for the rest of the year. Part of this response will involve a consequence procedure that is too long and detailed to be included here. This column will only include how to apologize, but you are still going to give the class serious consequences for using negative behaviors. Even though you acted like a jerk, your students still need to learn to use positive behaviors no matter the situation.

This is what I would say the first chance I got.

Kid Whisperer: Folks, I need to talk with you all. I really owe you a sincere apology. I am so incredibly sorry that I raised my voice with you all last week. I felt horribly about this all weekend. I know I couldn’t stand it when I was a kid and teachers would yell at me, and now I’ve yelled at you. I can’t apologize enough.

After each individual gets done with fulfilling their consequence obligations, I would say the following to each student as they leave the classroom while shaking their hand:

Kid Whisperer: Again, I’m sorry. You don’t have to accept my apology, but do you?

Kid: Yes.

Kid Whisperer: Thanks. That means a lot to me.


Kid: No.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. I hear you. It must have been hard to be that honest with me and I appreciate it. I’m going to work very hard to earn your trust back.

Sometimes it will be hard to be the light in the darkness. Few, if any, of your coworkers have the skills to do it. It isn’t their fault (no one ever taught them those skills). Just continue to be the light. Don’t try to get them to be the light, and don’t listen when they try to get you to spread darkness. Just keep doing what you know to be right, no matter what they say. People will soon start asking you about how they can be the light. Once they ask, tell them, but not before then. Just concentrate on being the light, because if you don’t, no one will ask you how, and the light won’t spread.