EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Sorry?

Over this past year I have had a number of conversations with fellow teachers where the topic of apologizing comes up and it surprises me how many people are anti-apology especially in regards to their students.  From what I gather some people believe that if they apologize for something that may or may not be their fault they are admitting fault and the floodgates of doom open and wash away all hope of the future.   I of course exaggerate but the exaggeration conveys the feelings I get from the anti-apologists. I think usually what they actually say is that they might be sued or that they will appear weak.

I fall firmly in the -an apology is a social lubricant -camp.  I always do my best to apologize when I recognize a mistake that I made, no matter who it is, especially if it inconveniences them.  For example, mistakes in directions, typos that obscure the meaning of information I am presenting or are on a test and add to the stress of testing.  But I even go a step further and apologize for things that are definitely not my fault.  I’m sorry that you are upset, or (one that I use a lot) I am sorry my meaning was not clear to you.  I find that it smoothes over a lot of issues that plagued other people.  I am acknowledging a person’s feelings and then they are usually more receptive to what I am saying even if what I am saying is not what they want to hear.  I know I make mistakes and I feel it is important to acknowledge them.

And what about getting sued? People tend not to sue people they like and who doesn’t like me?  I’m the teacher who listened.  How do they know I listened? Well, I apologized.

When something you do backfires or you make a mistake do you apologize to your students?  Have you ever thought about the impact of choosing to apologize or choosing not to? 

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

Feature Image Sorry on Australia Day-sky writing, National Apology Day 2014, by Butupa

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.


  1. March 6, 2014 at 9:51 am —

    I think apologizing for making a mistake in the classroom is usually a good idea. I think it gives the students a reality check that you are not some robot that lives at the school that is turned on and rolled out for their class. I think that most students appreciate the honesty and in turn will be more comfortable with you in the future since they can now acknowledge you as a person. I do know instructors who say that if you apologize for your mistake it shows weakness in the class and that means you will have problems with control. Meh, when I make a boo boo I own up to it and so far no one has declared mutiny.

  2. March 6, 2014 at 5:27 pm —

    I do my best to apologise when necessary, but only when I am absolutely certain that I am in the wrong–otherwise an admission of guilt can cause major problems, like when students try to con you into thinking you lost work they never turned in in the first place.

    I had a particularly awkward apology experience a couple of years ago, when I was teaching my usual 300-student lecture. While recording grades for a written assignment, I noticed about eight of them were missing. Because my TAs and I split up the papers directly after the class in which they were turned in, it became immediately obvious that one of them had somehow lost those papers. Unfortunately, we hadn’t performed a raw count of each TAs stack before recording the grades, so it wasn’t possible to determine who had lost them.

    One of the TAs then claimed responsibility for the loss and apologised, and I gave him an appropriate lecture due to the severity of the situation (it was, after all, hugely unprofessional). I was then forced to contact the students in question to ask them for new copies of their work, apologising to them profusely for the error without shifting the blame to the TA in question, since it was ultimately my responsibility.

    The next day, a different TA found the missing assignments at his home, meaning the one who had initially admitted to losing them had not, in fact, lost them. I then wrote an email to all the TAs stressing the necessity of being careful with student work, and contacted the students in question to tell them their assignments had been found.

    This whole fiasco had two main results:

    1) The first TA (who admitted to losing the assignments even though he had not) became very angry with me for not specifically apologising for berating him after he told me he lost the assignments. This started a pattern of passive-aggressive behaviour that effectively poisoned our working relationship and led to a much bigger (but unrelated) headache down the road when I was (inappropriately) asked by the administration to informally evaluate his performance. To be honest I still don’t really think he deserved an apology for getting that lecture, as it wasn’t like I accused him–he told me he had done it! Am I wrong about that?

    2) My transparency about the situation with the students led to a lot of nastiness and accusations of being unprofessional when it came time for student evaluations (it did not help that the assignment was given back shortly before the online evaluation period began). I am usually pretty Zen about the petty bullshit that students sometimes write in evals, but I have to admit that those comments really got to me.

    • March 7, 2014 at 5:04 pm —

      Dan – I do not envy you a 300- student lecture.

      It amazes me that a person would take the blame if they did not actually lose the papers, unless they were taking one for the team and deflecting the blame from the other TA’s. If that were the case I would think the TA should be mad at the person who lost the papers. It makes me wonder what the TA was doing that he thought he had lost the papers.

      Your comment got me thinking about those students of mine who react poorly to apologies. My classes are tracked into 3 groups which roughly corresponds to their math level. In my classes that need the most support and my classes that need the least support those students tend to accept an apology as a matter of course, as if saying “sure everybody makes mistakes, no problem.” But my middle of the road students are the ones that from time to time give me trouble. It is as if they take it as a personal affront that I made a mistake. It makes me wonder at the reason.

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