Pop QuizSecondary Education

Pop Quiz: When To Admit That You’re Wrong

Being wrong is a vital part of science and scepticism. Part of the whole point of science is to try to disprove whatever theory you’ve come up with; to try to prove yourself wrong in any way you can. Atheists and sceptics are often accused of being as dogmatic and close-minded as the True Believers they argue with, but the whole point of scepticism is to try to get to the truth of issues and form (and change) opinions based on the evidence. I don’t believe in psychic powers, but I’ll certainly change my mind tomorrow if I suddenly see good solid evidence of their existence.


As a sceptical teacher, I see it as my job to model good sceptical behaviour for my pupils. I want to encourage them to think and to question the world around them and so I make sure that they see me doing those things as much as possible. This includes letting them see that I’m willing to admit that I’m wrong. Teenagers can often find it more than a little difficult to accept personal responsibility for some of their actions and so they need to see other people doing just that. I feel quite strongly that a teacher who’s willing to admit their own mistakes gains more respect than one who refuses to admit that they’re ever wrong in front of pupils.


This is especially important when you’ve just accidentally bullied a disabled child in front of an entire class.


A few months ago I got into a confrontation with a pupil in a class I was covering. I didn’t know any of the pupils in the class, which meant that I was in more of a “stern hard-ass” mode than I would normally be with my own classes. Someone at the back of the room had been making silly noises and I was CONVINCED that I knew who it was. I even convinced myself that I’d seen the boy in question doing it out of the corner of my eye.


One thing led to another and I ended up telling the young man to step outside for a “restorative conversation”, as per our behaviour policy. I should have realised that something was amiss when, after I’d told him to leave, the entire class went awkwardly quiet. The boy went bright red, stood up, and moved towards the door.


The thing about mild cerebral palsy is that it can be barely noticeable when someone is sitting behind a desk, but it really really makes itself known when someone’s forced to stand up and walk across a deathly quiet classroom. It can also make a person quite self-conscious; certainly self-conscious enough not to argue with an angry teacher in front of an entire class.


This boy hadn’t been making the noises at all. It had been the kid two seats over. I know this now because that person admitted to it when the tension in the room because too much to bear. I was completely and utterly wrong, and I’d managed to totally humiliate an innocent young man in front of an entire class.


I was more embarrassed than I’ve ever been in a classroom. I apologised profusely to the boy, asked him to sit back down, and hung my head in shame. The rest of the class looked like they were wishing for collective ground-swallowing incident. The only thing I could do to  relieve some of the tension was to admit to the class that I’d made a mistake, acted rashly, and that I was hugely sorry. I caught the boy on the way out at the end of the period to apologise again, by which point he had returned to a much more natural colour. It all worked out and I’ve worked with the boy in question several times since then. He always teases me about it, but I definitely feel that the fact that I apologised publicly and admitted my mistake helped to avert what could have turned into protracted animosity.


For today’s Pop Quiz, I’d like to know about time when you might have had to admit to a mistake in front of students (hideously embarrassing and borderline-immoral or not).


Has this ever happened to you? What happened and how did you deal with it?


Do you feel that seeing teachers admit their own mistakes is important for young people?


Have you ever called a teacher or lecturer out on their mistake? How did they respond?


The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars Of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Featured Image Credit: mloberg


Previous post

Newsflash: Art Might Make You Uncomfortable

Next post

Students, Privacy, and Social Networks: The Game!



Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

1 Comment

  1. August 25, 2013 at 9:00 pm —

    I absolutely apologize and admit when I’m in the wrong. It’s bizarre to me that some teachers don’t. Kids understand that people make mistakes. I think people almost universally prefer people to apologize when they’re in the wrong. The only possible danger I can see is in being so much of a pushover that kids can wheedle you into thinking you’re in the wrong when you’re not, but it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater to respond to that by just never apologizing, instead of just being consistent.

    My last major error that required an apology was Friday. I teach four sections of English. I had just graded an assignment that was primarily a (horrifically boring) exercise in MLA formatting for essays and citations. My last section of the day had many more citation errors than the other sections, which didn’t really surprise me because they’re generally more rambunctious and less careful than my other hours. I really got on their case about following formatting directions and talked about the expectations in college and the workplace. Turns out that I had skipped the section in that class earlier than week about how to do in-text citations. Some of them were resourceful and found the information about how to do it online, but others didn’t. Either way, it was on me because I gave the other three classes more complete directions about how to do the assignment, but graded them all the same. I apologized and told them I would re-grade the assignment this weekend and not take points off for that specific error, and told them how to do it for the future. They seemed totally satisfied with that, but I still felt bad because I really came down hard on them before I understood what happened.

    I think, in that situation, some teachers might have fallen back on saying that they all could have taken initiative to look it up on their own, and while that is true and is what the more resourceful students did, it doesn’t take away the fact that I definitely made a mistake and that merits an apology. They really did seem, not just mollified, but genuinely happier after I apologized and told them I would re-grade them–even the ones who hadn’t made that mistake. I think they really appreciate being treated like human beings and not expected to just put up with the mistakes of adults while having to apologize and accept consequences for their mistakes.

Leave a reply