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It pays to say the hardest word

We expect pupils to apologise for poor behaviour. But when teachers get it wrong, they should say sorry to their students, too, writes Gererd Dixie

We expect pupils to apologise for poor behaviour. But when teachers get it wrong, they should say sorry to their students, too, writes Gererd Dixie

When a student is really wound up and ready to "have a go", it is often advisable to leave them alone until they have calmed down. In the heat of the moment, however, this is not an easy thing to do.

I remember one incident in my first year of secondary teaching in an extremely challenging school in west London. I had had a run-in with a boy whose behaviour during my lesson had been totally unacceptable. Let's call him Gary. To be honest, I should have kept Gary behind at break and sorted things out quietly and calmly. If you are worried about losing face, you should try to step back and remember that the pupil's inappropriate behaviour is not a personal slight on you. But at the time, I felt his misbehaviour was just that and I did not want to talk to him. I soon paid for my mistake.

I was just about to launch a geography lesson with my Year 10 class when Gary burst into the room, knocked over a few chairs and started swearing and insulting me. You can imagine that, as a young and inexperienced teacher, I was quite taken aback. In fact, although I tried to appear outwardly calm, I was inwardly shaking. Gary then stormed out of the room. He was excluded for a period of two weeks.

I learnt two lessons from this experience. The first was that I could have prevented the whole thing by dealing with the earlier incident in a more objective and less personalised manner. My pride, however, had stood in my way.

I learnt the second lesson three years later, after Gary had left school. He took the trouble to come back to tell me how he was getting on. He apologised to me for his outburst and explained that his mum and dad had split up the evening before the incident, and that he was angry and simply "looking for a fight". I was the first person he had come across.

I felt humbled by his apology. "There is no need for you to apologise to me, Gary," I told him. "I am the adult and I should have read the situation better. Please accept my apologies." We parted on good terms.

Teachers should not be afraid to show their human side to students. We all get things wrong occasionally and, if you are trying to encourage a high level of reflectivity among your students, it is important to apologise to them when you get it wrong. When I say apologise, I do not mean in a fawning, sycophantic manner - that would be seen by many students as a sign of weakness.

Throughout my career, there have been many other occasions where I have overreacted to a student's inappropriate behaviour and where I have been too acerbic or robust in my disciplinary responses. In these situations, I try very hard to make amends by asking to see the student concerned, and by trying to re-establish good relations with them. I remember doing this with a Year 9 student who was really winding me up with some low-level, but nevertheless annoying, behaviour. We'll call him John.

I was feeling tired and stressed, and things were going quite badly during the lesson. John was off-task and laughing at one of his friends. Suddenly, I snapped. I let John have it. His misdemeanour was trivial and certainly did not warrant the personal attack I made on him. I felt awful about the situation and knew I had to do something about it.

I called John over during the afternoon registration session and apologised for the way I had spoken to him. I told him that, although his behaviour was unacceptable, I had no right to speak to him like that. John was so taken aback by my apology that I experienced no further problems with him for the rest of the year. In fact, this simple apology improved my relationship with him so dramatically that, a year later, he came to see me to check if I was "all right".

I would not lay claim to getting it right in every situation. But I feel I was successful in showing John a number of things: that teachers get things wrong; that it is not a sign of weakness to apologise; that I was right to criticise his behaviour, but wrong to make a personal attack on him. It demonstrated to him that relationships can be successfully rebuilt after conflict.

This is an extract from Gererd Dixie's new book, "Getting on Better with Teenagers: improving behaviour and learning through positive relationships", which is published by Continuum


Gererd Dixie is an educational consultant and an advanced skills teacher in initial teacher training. He has more than 30 years' experience in teaching. He is the author of several books, including Getting on Better with Teenagers, The Ultimate Teaching Manual and Managing Your Classroom, all published by Continuum.

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