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Teaching Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

By Peg Grafwallner
 | Oct 25, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-86524642_x300With 24 years of teaching under my belt, I’ve apologized more than my fair share—to colleagues, to administrators, and to parents.

But in those 24 years, I probably have apologized to my students the most.

Teaching can make one humble very quickly. Some teachers may think they have all the answers, but good teachers know they don’t.

As a high school English teacher, I learned that to work as an authentic classroom community, I needed to take responsibility when the lesson didn’t go well and show my students that I was willing to try again, even if they weren’t.

It usually went something like this: I had a great idea for a lesson and created a plan that I thought was foolproof. As I look back to those early days of my career, I realize the lessons that didn’t go well were the ones that were poorly planned and tended to rely more on an activity I had briefly read about or on a three-minute video clip I had seen. But the activity seemed engaging and fun and my students would love it!

Of course, I was sure I would get the same result that the author flaunted or the same result displayed in the video: students hunched over their desks, working with peers with such ferocity that lunchtime couldn’t wedge them out of their chairs, followed by a discussion that would be one for the ages, with students eager to raise their hand to share wisdom beyond their years. Yes, I knew exactly what this activity would look like in my classroom, and I was eager to share it with students.

As an example, during Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, I decided to assign students Act I, scene IV to read at home. We had read the prior acts as a large group. I was confident that with the necessary scaffolding and background information I had given to them about Queen Mab, they could read it, interpret it, and come back the next day with incredibly insightful notes. I anticipated a discussion with perceptive analysis and keen awareness. I was ready to be mesmerized!

They weren’t. Most students came back with what looked to be poorly copied SparkNotes. Some read the scene and gave me a three- to four-sentence “overview” (Internet based, I’m sure), and others didn’t bother to read at all.

Then it hit me: The reason the lesson failed and the reason I owed students an apology was because I didn’t set a purpose for reading. I didn’t explain why the reading was important.

I didn’t blame my students. My desire to send them on their way to see what they could do “on their own” was poorly thought through. The discussion I had hoped for became a brief lecture by me of the four most important “takeaways” from the scene.

And so, I apologized. First, I apologized for not thoroughly explaining Mercutio’s chaotic personality and why the scene exemplified his personality. Second, I apologized for failing to highlight the value of the dream sequence and how that haunted Romeo later. Finally, I apologized for basically throwing them into the deep end without a net.

I had given students the background knowledge they needed for the scene. But I didn’t tell them to offer evidence of Mercutio’s chaotic personality. I didn’t ask them how those examples of evidence demonstrated his personality. I had told them briefly about Queen Mab but didn’t ask students to explain the dream sequence or ask them to predict how Romeo’s dream haunted him later in the play. I didn’t bother telling the students what I wanted them to look for in their reading. I gave them what could be considered arguably the most difficult scene in Act I and threw them in, feet first without a life jacket. No wonder some of them struggled to stay afloat.

That was 24 years ago. Now that I’m an instructional coach/reading specialist at a large, urban high school, I use “why” questions when I work with teachers on gathering resources, lesson planning, and assessment: Why are we using those resources, and what are we hoping students gain from them? Why are we using that standard to represent that skill? What do we want to assess, and why should students know that information?

Yes, I’ve apologized many times to students throughout my 24-year career in the classroom. Although apologizing has never been easy, I always knew it was the right thing to do. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way and I know my students feel the same way.

peg grafwallner headshotPeg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools. Learn more about Peg on her website.

1 comment

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  1. Megan | Nov 06, 2016

    I agree that apologizing to students is an important part of teaching.  Early in the year, we teach our students that is okay to make mistakes.  We actually encourage them to make mistakes and show them how we learn from our mistakes.  It is good for students to see that teachers makes mistakes as well.  They need to know that we are not perfect.  We often have to learn from our lessons and change them to support the needs of our students. 

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