Teaching “How to apologize.” Using myself as an example.

A few weeks ago, there was one of my  unruly middle school students off task so I went over behind him and put my hands on his shoulders from behind, and told him to get to work.  The next that day, my principal is texting me saying to call him for a little crisis management.  The student went home, told his mom, she feared for his life, and his parents and was about to have me arrested. The principal assured the parents we would deal with it. I told him I would apologize and smooth things out.  However, I was mad, hurt, frustrated and told him, I’d resign the next day if he thought it would help. Honestly,  I am tired of this kind of nonsense.

The next day, the kids come into class, giddy with anticipation, and I think I heard one whisper excitedly “Mr. T has to apologize.” .  I guess it doesn’t happen too often when a teacher has to eat a little crow.  It seems to happen to me about every six months.

I just happened to have two posters that I had printed the previous week.  I pull out the first. It is called “The Four Agreements”.   I said,  “Class, when people do things that have unpleasant consequences, it is usually because of violating one of these four suggestions.  The Four Agreements are, in a nutshell, 1. Be honest, 2, Don’t make assumptions, 3. Don’t take anything personally and 4. Do your best.  I created a problem the other day by making an assumption that it was okay for me to put my hands on Ted’s shoulders to get his attention.  I was not aware that he valued his personal space and didn’t like teachers touching his shoulders.  Because so many students seem comfortable with me, demonstrated by the regular handshakes, high fives, and sometimes even hugs, I mistakenly assumed that was okay.  And it wasn’t.”

And at this point, I switch posters, the second one titled “How to apologize.”  Don’t ask me what I was thinking when I had that printed up but I assumed it would come in handy some day. I just didn’t think I would use it in class so soon, and really didn’t anticipate being the one needing to use it.

So I followed the instructions step by step.  1.  “Ted, I want to apologize for putting my hands on your shoulders and violating your space.  I didn’t know that you were sensitive about that.  2.  That was wrong of me to do.  It was wrong because I made an assumption, an incorrect assumption that it was okay.  I now fully understand that it wasn’t. 3. In the future, I won’t assume it is okay to put my hands on your shoulders and in fact, will try to avoid touching, tapping, patting you on the back, and in general avoid any form of physical contact.  And that goes for everyone.  Unless you specifically say it’s okay.  (In the back of the room, a class clown shouts out “You can touch me anytime Mr. Tidyman” to which everyone laughed.  And finally, Step 4.  I asked Ted, what can I do to make up for it?  Just don’t do it again, I’m told, and I explain, when you apologize effectively, 99% folks just say “Just don’t do it again.”  I explained the reaction you get most of the time when you ask how to make amends.

Lesson over?  Not yet.  At this point I explain that as they mature, they will need to learn that when you have an issue with someone, you need to go directly to the person that you have the issue with FIRST.  The minute you bring a third person into it, things get misinterpreted, lost in translation, more assumptions and there becomes all this drama, hurt feelings, assumptions, and it spirals out of control, and in fact, the cycle is described by a psychologist named Karpman, thus the Karpman Drama Triangle. Wouldn’t it just be easier if Ted had just said “Hey, Mr. T.  I’ve got issues about grown ups touching me and I’d rather you not put your hands on my shoulders, or touch me in any way.”  And I’d say “Cool. ”  Problem solved.  

So here is what happens when that drama triangle is spiraling out of control. A person gets his feelings hurt,  runs to a rescuer (often a parent), he/she calls an authority figure, like a boss or  the principal, gives him an ear full, then the boss/ principal calls teacher, teacher is confused, frustrated, and in general gets hurt, and angry and is ready to quit.  So at this point, I explain to the kids “Last night I was ready to retire.  I have my time in, I can leave tomorrow.  I’m 62 and can get social security. I could go work as a Wal-Mart greeter and make up the difference in my pay cut.  And my experience is, every time I get transferred or leave a school, they find a business teacher who comes in, keeps you in the computer lab all the time and kids never get to do any really cool hands on stuff again.”  The kids have a deer in the headlight look in their eyes, saying “You can’t retire.  Don’t leave.”  To which I reply, “I can, and I will when I’m convinced I’m not wanted here anymore, or I can’t do my job satisfactorily.”

So all the drama, the phone calls, the hurt feelings, the anger, the desire to quit, all could have been avoided if 1, I didn’t make an assumption, and 2, the person came to me first to resolve the issue instead of dragging in a third party, a rescuer of sorts.  

There was one more little lesson, that I touch on regularly, when a kid goes running home to a parent because he was offended.  OMG!!!   People will say whatever they say, and if you are going to get your feelings hurt every time someone says something you don’t like, and take it personally, you are going to be pretty miserable and have a life filled with drama.  Learn to not take things personally.  Like water off a duck’s back.  Grow a little thicker skin.  What people think about you is none of your business.   

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So why did I do that the way I did.  Because by the time I slept on it, I realized that the reason I teach is to teach them about life skills; communication, how to apologize, minimizing drama, developing resilience and perseverance.  Somehow I thought this was a golden opportunity, a teachable moment. I felt like it was important to show them adults have to learn to apologize later. Adults can be vulnerable, take emotional risks, and must if they are going to live wholehearted lives.  I think it will stick with teaching a little while longer.  

From Brene Brown, “Daring Greatly.”  Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.  It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.  

This definition is based on these fundamental ideals:

  1. Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection–it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.  The absence of love, belonging and connection always leads to suffering.
  2. If you roughly divide the men and women I’ve interviewed into two groups–those who feel a deep sense of love and belonging, and those who struggle for it–there’s only one variable that separates the groups:  Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging.  They don’t have better or easier lives, they don’t have fewer struggles with addiction or depression, and they haven’t survived fewer traumas or bankruptcies or divorces, but the the midst of all these struggles, they have developed practices that enable them to hold on to the belief that they are worthy of love, belonging, and even joy.
  3. A strong belief in our worthiness doesn’t just happen–it’s cultivated when we understand the guideposts as choices and daily practices.
  4. The main concern of Wholehearted men and women is living a life defined by courage, compassion and connection.  
  5. The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection.  In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted.  They attribute everything–from their professional success to their marriage to their proudest parenting moments–to their ability to be vulnerable.

~~Brene Brown from “Daring Greatly”