As an educator, I do my best to make emotional space in my heart for times when I have to apologize to my students for having done something I shouldn’t have done. For example, my students already know that if I raise my voice, I apologize on the spot for creating an emotionally unsafe space for the kids. And if I forget to apologize, I’m always reminded with remarks such as, “Um, Allen, you didn’t apologize for raising your voice.” Then I end up apologizing for forgetting to apologize for raising my voice! It’s all good fun, really.
Today, Jerry (6 y/o) appropriately called me out for being a total bonehead because I undermined his intelligence. Consequently I realized just how powerful and important it is for a teacher – given the appropriate circumstances – to practice humility by saying two golden phrases to a child: “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.”
Here’s how it all went down. My first graders and I were chilling in the school library, exploring books while lounging on the comfy bean bags and floor pillows. I was reading a picture book to a few children who had crowded around me. Once I finished the story, I made an announcement that it was time to head back to class for Writer’s Workshop. As the children filed out, I jumped up on my feet and slammed my head on the low loft ceiling above. “Ouch!” I shrieked. The kids stared at me as I stood there holding my head in pain.
“Are you ok, Allen?” the children sympathized.
“Yes yes, I’m fine. Let’s go upstairs for Writer’s Workshop.”
When we returned to the classroom, I reminded the children to make sure that books they checked out must go into the appropriate book bins of the classroom library. I noticed Jerry putting a book about snakes into the wrong bin.
“Jerry, please check your book again,” I said. “Is this a fiction or non fiction?”
Jerry completely ignored me and continued to place the snake book in the same bin.
“Jerry,” I persisted. “Please rethink your decision. This book is non-fiction. Where does it go?”
Jerry stared at me in frustration, as if to say, “Allen, I know what I’m doing. What is wrong with you?” Ignoring me again, he put the snake book in the same bin and waited for my move.
“Sorry, dude,” I said shaking my head. “Try again. You have a non-fiction book and you’re putting it into the fiction bin.”
He refuted my claim again, this time shaking his head with resolute force. It seemed that Jerry and I were stuck in a debate with no apparent winner in site. But then Jerry went in for the kill, ending this debacle once and for all. He put his finger directly under the “non” of the “non-fiction” label and said, “Um, Allen, this is the non fiction bin.” I looked at the label again and indeed it was the non-fiction bin. Jerry had been making the correct decision all along! “Looks like Allen had a brain fart,” I thought to myself.
Then Jerry said, “Please wait here, Allen, I have something that will help you.” He ran off toward the bathroom and came back with a soaked paper towel. “Here you go Allen. Put this cold paper towel on your head where you got the bump. This will help you take care of your brain since you didn’t know where the non-fiction books are supposed to go.”
“It’s ok, Allen,” Jerry said. His voice sang with empathy and care. “You just hit your head. Your brain wasn’t working properly.” Then he walked to his writing spot to wait for me to begin the writing lesson. But I followed him, knelt down to one knee, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Jerry, I’m sorry for doubting you. Thank you for your kindness.” Jerry blushed and nodded his head in acceptance.
I got up to my feet – slowly this time. “Boys and girls, I’m glad to see you all gathered on the rug in your writing spots to begin today’s Writer’s Workshop…” My eyes met Jerry’s. He was still smiling at me, sitting tall and looking proud to be an excellent 6-year-old teacher. I smiled back with gratitude for being his 33-year old student.