Helping people apologize has become my job. I teach at a large middle school in Anchorage, Alaska. My school has a reputation for having “difficult” kids. We are the Alaskan equivalent of the inner city. This year, the school started a program called the P.R.I.D.E. reset zone. The P.R.I.D.E. stands for our school words: Perseverance, Responsibility, Integrity, Dignity, and Empathy. Basically, kids in grades 6–8 get referred to me or my partner Jen to discuss what got them kicked out of class. Together we decide what needs to be done to repair the situation. It involves a reflection form and a guided conversation with a caring adult — the idea being that kids need to process through what happened in order to gain any better footing going forward. Jen and I decided to take it a step further. We were going to do something a little novel. A little daring. We were going to teach kids how to apologize — and then, we were going to make them do it.
I have found that most kids want to apologize. The few that resist, end up willing to do it, but there is a trick to the process. It is a different way of looking at apology and it is powerful.
- Don’t focus on the details, focus on the feelings.
I could say this is especially true in middle school, but honestly, I see it everywhere. The first thing a student wants to do is quibble over the details. This is how the teacher wronged me. This is what she said. I didn’t throw the paper, I tossed it. As a mediator, I patiently listen. I validate the feeling. Oh, so you feel frustrated because other people were talking but you were the one to get in trouble. And because you just tossed the paper in the trash, but you were accused of throwing paper. The student agrees. Yes, I agree that is frustrating. You have a right to feel that.
After validating the feeling, we explore what the teacher was feeling. What was the teacher trying to do when the class was talking? (Usually, the answer is giving instructions) How do you think the teacher felt? Things generally roll back to the conclusion that the teacher probably felt frustrated and upset about being interrupted. Then the kicker: Do you think you can apologize for your part in things? I carefully explain that the student is not apologizing for how they feel. They have the right to feel upset. They are simply apologizing for the part they played in making another person feel bad. When they understand that they can keep their feelings, they are ready to own up to their side of the situation.
2. Apology is not about explanation, it’s about acknowledgement
There is a desire to be justified in behavior and an apology can feel like losing. This is always the biggest obstacle. I shouldn’t have to apologize because I wouldn’t act that way if the teacher wasn’t so annoying. This part of things requires some introspection and most times, a timeline. It focuses a little more on the details because, as we all know, that’s where the devil is. But it is only after the feelings are validated that focus to details can happen. I walk the kids through the minutia of what happened and they inevitably start to see that they had some responsibility in what happened.
The student and I will talk about how to own responsibility. I may apologize to them with an explanation. “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but you made me mad.” I ask if that sounds like a real apology. Basically, in that version, you might as well say, “I wouldn’t yell if you didn’t make me.” What makes an apology an apology is the acknowledgement that, purposefully or not, you have caused some damage to a relationship through your actions. I ask the student to acknowledge the teachers feelings. What they end up saying is something like, “I’m sorry that I was disrespectful. I know that feels bad.” Acknowledging this is powerful for the student because it creates a space for empathy. It is powerful for the teacher as well because it demonstrates an understanding of the consequences of behavior.
3. Apologies are about personal accountability, not control.
We often practice how an apology is going to go down before delivering it. Depending on how difficult the student, or hard the situation, teachers may not be ready to accept an apology graciously. We talk about that. An apology is not a magic reset button. It does not erase wrong doing and it does not end a conversation. Many adults I have dealt with want to treat apologies as if they are a period at the end of a sentence. They do not want to hear any more about how they hurt the other person — they just want the whole thing to go away. But that’s not the purpose of apology. They are not a period, they are commas. I explain to the students that apologies are about having the personal integrity to see that you have caused damage to another person. It is about owning your part. Once you make an apology, the other person may want further conversation. They may need to see your behavior change over time before they are willing to just give you their trust. When students understand that, it doesn’t matter what the response is. They have pride for taking ownership and are prepared for the conversation.
I honestly feel like the teaching I do about apologies is some of the most important work I have done. Repairing relationships is hard, but if a person can come to terms with the idea that apologizing does not mean becoming a door mat, maybe some change could happen. It’s not about making yourself smaller. It’s about having the courage, the bigness, to keep your feelings but acknowledge the value of another persons feelings as well.