"It is never too late to apologize, it is never too late to forgive"
As many of us get our feet back on the ground for new students, we start thinking about how we will manage the classroom better this year. I have not had a perfect year of classroom management in 7 years. But each year has been better than the previous. And that’s because I was willing to make some changes. If you are like me, you begin the year writing down or thinking about which hills you are going to die on. By hills I mean rules. What expectations will you uphold no matter what, and which are you willing to let slide? For some of us, it’s the side conversations during class. For others, it’s cell phones. And if you’re me - it’s chewing gum.
It is okay to change your mind about your hills. In fact, I’d be concerned if you never changed your hills. Maybe one year you were a stickler about hats, but then you realized students wearing hats didn’t really impact your learning environment so you no longer made it one of your hills. Maybe one year you didn’t care about gum, but the next year you stepped in it with your favorite heels on and a month later some showed up in your hair - so you made it one of your hills. It is okay to change your mind. Like teaching, our classroom management can change. We evolve as educators and so our classroom systems should evolve as well.
So you thought of it all! You have your rules, your consequences and how to manage it all in a nice Google Form spreadsheet. To top it off, you even have your beautifully drawn warning chart and signed parent consequence contracts. But, things will still go wrong. So the question is, what will you do when it goes wrong? Conversations will interrupt your teaching, glass beakers will be dropped, feelings will be hurt around Valentines day, and the list goes on and on (and on, if you are a middle school teacher). We are human and so are our students. When the “wrongs” happen in class, it’s our job as teachers to provide a space for students to apologize. But even more importantly, we have to teach the students how to use the space we are providing them.
I tell my students at the beginning of the year that getting sent outside is not a punishment. Instead it is a time for the student and I (or multiple students and I) to chat and talk about what is going on. Now a student finding him or herself in this chat could need it for any variety of reasons. Maybe they had their seat changed 3 times and still couldn't stop talking. Maybe they were repeatedly interrupting during our class presentations. Maybe they were arguing with a member of their table and it was getting heated. Whatever the reason, they had 2 warnings (my rule is they get 2 warnings every day) during the class period and now we needed to have a separate conversation.
Now when these conversations would occur between me and a student in the past, the mental work was put on me. I had to lead the conversation by: replaying what happened, explaining what was wrong, asking questions about why they did it, asking for apologies, and so on. In reality, I talked and the student just listened and agreed with me. They would end with a “sorry” and I told them to come into class and continue with our activity. I was getting tired of these types of conversation. I wanted students to take the 1-2 minute break from the bigger classroom environment to reflect quickly on their own, talk to me and genuinely explain what could/should happen, and then we could both get back to class to do more science! I realized I couldn’t expect this to happen unless I explicitly taught it.
So I scoured the internet to see what other teachers did. I needed to find something to help students come up with what to say when something was going wrong in the classroom. I wanted to put the ownership of the wrongdoing back on the students so that they could genuinely reflect and talk about what happened. I found a great diagram on Pinterest with 4 cues for kids to answer: “I am sorry for… It was wrong because… Next time I will… Is there anything else I can do?” (It has been recreated so many times so I don’t know who the original creator is, sorry!). These helped the students get to thinking about why they needed to take a short break from class and also how to repair the situation.
The 4 cues worked for two years. But this year, I had to change my hill. I had to change my rules and expectations because guess what - the kids were different! What worked last year wasn’t working this year. I had to move the focus from students having better conversations with me to students having better conversations with each other. Last year I was most often caught in these conversations because 2 students were not getting along with each other, and that was what was interrupting some part of our class. Now the student who followed the cues, knew how to apologize. But what was the other student supposed to? How was I supposed to facilitate their interaction quickly, effectively, and meaningfully? My job was to get back to teaching but I had to fix this. So yesterday, I created the Apology Template 2.0 (sounds fancy so I’ll keep referring to it as this):
Now just because I created the Apology Template 2.0, that did not mean students knew how to do this effectively. Like I mentioned above, it is our job as teachers to provide the spaces for students to own up to their actions and repair relationships in the classroom - we also need to teach them how. This can be done in your classroom instead of sending them to the office. Yesterday, my students walked into class and their warm up question was “create a list of 5 situations where you would need to apologize to someone”. After about 10 minutes of discussing, we came up with this list in each of my classes:
Myself and one student volunteer acted out one situation above in front of the entire class to provide everyone with a model. We each completed our part in the apology template and the rest of the class bought in very quickly because we made it quick, light and relevant (why a student took scissors from class instead of just asking if he could borrow them).
I then numbered the students off into pairs and picked different scenarios for them to act out. I wanted them to act out scenarios that occurred the most frequently in middle school (instead of fake or unlikely situations - one student said “you should apologize if you frame someone”, I decided not to take that on). We took #3 for example (if you hurt their feelings) and turned it into “your partner told your crush that you liked them, even when you told them to keep it a secret). Right away the class got excited because clearly they had experienced this before. I gave them about 3 minutes to role play the scenario (while having Apology Template 2.0 posted). Then, pairs volunteered to act out the event in front of the class. We did this with 4 different situations. Some students took it more seriously than others, so I did have to remind some students to remember what the purpose of the assignment is. It was engaging, relevant, fun and each student got to practice how to apologize and how to forgive.
At the end of class I projected the Apology Template 2.0 on the screen of the classroom and students talked about wording, clarity and purpose. They gave feedback on phrases to change and phrases to keep. Students said it was difficult for them to explain how they felt or validating how someone else felt, so they originally pushed back on that statement and asked me to remove it completely. I understood why. I told them sharing how you feel in a situation where you have been offended/hurt is really hard! I told them about situations in my life where I have had to do that. They started to relax when I told them I was 29 years old and haven’t perfected that skill yet. I reiterated to them that sharing how you feel is not easy and that empathy can be hard when you are hurt. I reminded them that they can practice this over time and that this was only a template. Some students said it felt robotic and so I had to remind them that this was a guide, it wasn’t going to be forced upon them. And that it doesn't work for every single situation in life but it could work for most of them. This is just there to help them if they need it. So, in the end, they let me keep the feelings statement. The final version of the apology template (same as above) that we agreed to and modified is here:
It was a great use of class time to teach, model and practice role playing this really important school and life skill. It was even more valuable that there was time to debrief together too. To close the activity, I asked for students to give feedback about what they thought, what they were wondering, what they liked and what they did not like about the activity. I was so impressed at their engagement (I hadn’t tried role playing like this before with 8th graders) and that each student participated and provided feedback. Below are some of their responses to the activity and role playing.
As we think about our classroom management hills, goals and dreams, we must accept that there were still be mistakes, wrongdoings, and hurt feelings this year. Knowing this early will help you to support students in taking ownership, will relieve your mental energy, and provide you more space and time to show your students how to recover and restore each other.