Elul and the Benefits of Apologizing to Students
I lived in Canada for four and a half years. One cultural difference between Canadians and Americans is that Canadians apologize for everything. Canadians sneeze, and they say, “sorry.” You bump into them; they say, “sorry.” A man drops his wallet, and you return it to him. He says: “Super-sorry!” “Sorry” is a stand-in for “thank you” and “let’s avoid conflict.” “Sorry” is not necessarily a statement of accountability.
For me, as an American, the Canadian “sorry” was humorous but never grating. Far more annoying is the tendency on the part of some people–regardless of citizenship–to never apologize. They think that they are perfect. They can’t admit a flaw or weakness; they always have to be right. As educators, it is our duty to instill in our students a genuine sense of accountability.
The Jewish month of Elul is a good time to recalibrate our use of the apology. Rambam (Maimonides) famously writes in Hilchot Teshuva 2:9 that God does not absolve us of sins against our fellow neighbors until we make restitution and ask them forgiveness. He includes specific examples as if to say that when we apologize, we should not hedge or equivocate. We should be specific about the offense, express our regret, seek to make things right, and resist the temptation to repeat the misdeed.
Rambam himself does not equivocate–he does not say these rules apply only to children. He does not say that one apologizes only where the power balance is equal. His Laws of Repentance apply to all our relationships, including those between a teacher and a student.
I came across a blog of a Missouri principal named David Geurin, who points out, in his January 31, 2020 post, that besides being the right thing to do, apologizing can enrich the learning environment. He lists seven benefits of apologizing to students. It is a list that is worth reading as we start the new academic year and approach the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays).
Geurin writes that an apology:
- Shows That You’re Human
Kids sometimes think their teachers are above making mistakes. But kids need to know that we teachers are human too. We are doing the best we can, and we’re going to make mistakes. Positive human behavior involves admitting mistakes.
- Creates a Healthy Example
When students see us apologize and show regret for our actions, it helps them feel more confident to do the same. We get a clearer picture of how things really are when we are honest about our mistakes.
- Shows Ownership of a Mistake
Students will be more likely to take risks if they know that we, the teachers, also admit and take ownership of our own mistakes in the classroom.
- Builds Connection
When we, the teachers, admit mistakes, it makes our relationships with students stronger because it makes students feel like we can be trusted.
- Increases Your Influence
Some people fear admitting a mistake because they think other people will use it against them. But the opposite is usually true. When we admit mistakes, we appear smarter, more confident, and more sincere, and that creates allies.
- Shows You Care
People who won’t admit mistakes are often self-focused and are more concerned with protecting themselves rather than showing that they care about others. Admitting a mistake is a selfless decision.
- Develops a Growth Mindset
When you have a growth mindset, you view mistakes as part of learning. Admitting a mistake and apologizing for it, if it hurt someone, is an important step toward moving past it and learning from it.
As teachers, modeling the proper way to apologize can not only help us foster better relationships with our students, but can also demonstrate a path towards real teshuvah: owning up to our mistakes and course-correcting for the future.