27th March 2009 at 00:00
Whether you're in power or in a classroom, apologising can be difficult. So do we say the s-word when it really matters?

Bump into someone on the street and both parties - whether guilty or not - are likely to say sorry. That is because the British are addicted to apologising.

The average Brit says sorry a staggering 1.9 million times in their lifetime, according to a survey of more than 1,000 people conducted by Esure car insurance. That's nine times per day.

However, admitting a mistake, let alone apologising, can feel trickier if you are a teacher. After all, teachers have traditionally been viewed as untouchable, infallible authority figures, who occupy a different ground from the pupils in their charge.

For those strictly trained not to smile until Christmas, and to never show fear, admitting to pupils that they have got it wrong might seem too great a risk to their credibility. Yet the consensus among experienced teachers is that teachers should always be ready to say sorry.

June, a primary school teacher in east London, says it is crucial that staff set an example of how to apologise, especially when their pupils' parents are particularly authoritarian and unlikely to say sorry themselves.

She has had to apologise to identical twins for telling off the wrong sibling and has said sorry to volatile parents even when she wasn't at fault. "Sometimes, it's easier just to say sorry rather than let a disagreement escalate or carry on."

She felt especially guilty when she told off a reception child for poking her head through the bars that separated an adjoining class. "I told her to stop being so nosey," says June.

"In fact, she had her head stuck between the bars and was getting quite hot and flustered. I helped her free herself and then said sorry."

As an NQT, June would mumble any apologies, but she is now more confident to admit mistakes and regularly asks pupils what they all can do to rectify the situation. "Mistakes are rarely black and white. There is usually an apology needed on both sides, but I'm sure that if we never apologised, pupils never would either."

Kate Aspin, a senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University, agrees. She teaches trainees about the importance of apologising to pupils and parents when they have made mistakes.

"We would encourage apologising quickly after the issue has been noticed, in person and privately rather than in front of an audience - keeping it short and to the point," she says. "You can even look at model ways to apologise in PSHE sessions - but this is easier with younger children. Older children and teenagers need greater care as apologising can mean losing face."

Ms Aspin has even apologised to the tooth fairy. "As a Year 2 teacher, children's teeth falling out was common, so we would sellotape them on to a piece of card to send home," she says.

"Once in the middle of a Christmas play a child's tooth fell out and we put it on the side as there was no time to sort it out. Later on, the tooth had vanished, cue tears and panic.

"I felt terrible, so I wrote a formal letter to the tooth fairy confirming the loss and apologising for losing the tooth. This mollified the child, the parent was pleased and the tooth fairy coughed up the cash."

T ony Callaghan, a retired head, believes that apologising to pupils can help foster respect on all sides. When a stealing spree occurred at his school, St Bedes Catholic Middle School in Bedford, which has now closed, a few pupils were falsely accused of being the perpertrator. After the real culprit was identified, Mr Callaghan apologised formally to those who had been wrongly accused.

"They understood what had happened and took it on the chin," he says. "I respected that reaction and told them so. I think, if anything, the whole episode strengthened our relationship."

Mr Callaghan also apologised to the parents of the boy responsible for the thefts, when he expelled him. "I told them that I was sorry, but I had to make a principled stand against what was a prolonged period of theft."

It became an acrimonious meeting. The parents refused to leave his office until Mr Callaghan changed his mind, which he refused to do. Eventually, they had to be escorted off the premises by police, shouting threats as they went.

But Mr Callaghan is pleased that he was not browbeaten into reversing his decision. "Sometimes teachers can become too apologetic and reluctant to make a stand," he says. "If you know what you are doing is right, you should do it without grovelling."

That ability to retain authority while admitting weakness is a difficult balancing act, says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist. Barack Obama gets it right, she argues. He quickly admitted he had "screwed up" when Tom Daschle, his health secretary nominee, admitted tax evasion, but remained firm over his controversial decision to lift restrictions on stem cell research.

In contrast, Gordon Brown has staunchly refused to apologise for his handling of the economy. "By not admitting any weakness, he is trying to tell us that we are in safe hands," says Ms Blair.

"He is saying, `I know everything.' That was fine 150 years ago when the prime minister did know a lot more than the general population, but now we have access to a lot of the same information as him. A dose of humility coupled with strength is the most reassuring approach, as opposed to an all-knowing outlook."

How the apology is taken depends on how it is conducted. The "Sorry - I got it all wrong," approach can unsettle and upset young children, who like adults to be strong and in control.

"Between equals, an apology is about admitting fallibility, but you have to be more careful if there is a power imbalance," says Ms Blair. "Be specific and make sure the pupils know you did your best in the circumstances."

An insincere apology could add insult to injury. Pupils can be astute at identifying whether an apology is authentic or not, especially when it is given in person.

The word sorry is now used more to apologise for another person's actions - or as an alternative to pardon - than it is to apologise for a wrongdoing.

"We're using the word more but apologising less," says Mark Tyrrell, a psychotherapist at Uncommon Knowledge, a personal development and training group. "We see more figures on reality TV who have a `Why shouldn't I?' attitude. They refuse to back down. Instead, it's who can shout the loudest."

However, it is essential that the traditional use of the word does not disappear altogether, says Ms Blair. "Hearing it helps make sense of our own value systems," she explains. "If a child apologises for hitting another child, it confirms to the injured party that violence is not acceptable.

"Secondly, apologising equalises us. It's saying, `I'm not better than you. We all make mistakes,'" she says.

She encourages pupils to get into the habit of apologising for misdemeanours, but warns against the forced apology or ordering someone to, "Say it again with feeling". As well as undermining authority, forced humility can lead to open rebellion - among both pupils and adults.

One headteacher demanded that a member of staff apologise to a parent on behalf of her five-year-old child's misbehaviour. "As a matter of principle I refused," says the teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous.

"As a result I endured a campaign of hell from the head, which affected my health. If I had my time again, I still wouldn't have said sorry, but would have resigned there and then."

Rather than push teachers and pupils into a corner, Ms Blair recommends authority figures suggest rather than insist upon apologies. By allowing the perpetrator to make a decision about whether to apologise, the episode can be transformed into a learning experience.

But Mr Tyrrell says there is a case for pushing the issue. "Apologising is about being polite and politeness is an important social lubricant," he argues. "Of course, it's better if pupils are reflective and mean what they say, but even if they don't, they're learning a social lesson."

How that apology is delivered is up to the individual. A letter is usually preferable to an email, argues Ms Blair, largely because an email is associated with something that is jotted down in a rush. A carefully written letter, meanwhile, is more likely to take time and be kept. A face-to-face apology carries the most emotional weight of all.

Even in person, the temptation to wiggle out of a genuine apology can prove overwhelming. Popular diversionary techniques include apologising for a subsidiary mistake as opposed to the real issue, or implying that the offended party shouldn't be so sensitive or cannot take a joke.

The reluctance to give a heartfelt "sorry" about anything important may be associated with a fear of litigation and the widespread belief that an apology is an admission of guilt.

But the General Teaching Council for England views remorse in a positive light at misconduct hearings. Committees take into consideration whether a teacher has insight into their failings or has shown genuine expressions of regret.

Last month William Horseman, a teacher at a Bristol school, escaped a lifetime ban after being caught using crack cocaine, partly because the council was impressed by his "insight and expression of remorse".

In the medical profession, where mistakes can have fatal consequences, simple, early admissions of fault can quickly diffuse a situation. Repeated surveys show that when a mistake is made, patients want a full explanation, apology and action to prevent it happening again.

In the University of Michigan Hospitals, an open disclosure policy has halved the number of lawsuits and substantially saved on litigation bills. It is a far cry from Frank Sinatra's ode to doing it "My Way" or the advice from Benjamin Jowett, the 19th-century Oxford don, who suggested: "Never explain, never apologise."

Teachers do not need to grovel, says Mr Tyrrell. Over apologising is an indication of low self-esteem and nervousness, particularly among the guilt-ridden middle classes, he says. But neither should they avoid saying sorry.

"You don't have to apologise whenever someone bumps into you, but there has to be some emotional reciprocity," he says. "If you're wronged, it's nice to feel at least a little redress."

Why we say sorry

1. Lacking time to speak or do something: "Sorry, I don't have time to talk about this now."

2. Apologising on behalf of others, such as children or partner.

3. Inability to hear.

4. Asking for something to be explained again.

5. Apologising for a wrongdoing.

Source: Esure ICM Poll, December 2006, ranked in order of frequency

The good, the bad and the ugly: high-profile apologies

  • "I apologised in full and I'm happy to do so again." Sir Fred Goodwin, former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, (above) says sorry to the Commons committee in February for the bank's failings. Despite his deep remorse and early resignation, he is set to receive a pension worth almost Pounds 17 million.
  • "I made a bad mistake. It's indefensible and I'm sorry about it." Bill Clinton apologises for lying over the Lewinsky affair in 1998.
  • "Forgive me, I beg you, and accept this public apology that I yield to your anger as an act of love." Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, turns on the charm after his wife accuses him of flirting with other women in 2007.
  • "I have expressed a degree of regret that can be equated with an apology." Des Browne, Defence Secretary, almost apologises for naval personnel selling their stories in 2007.
  • "I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam." Tony Blair admits that there were no weapons of mass destruction, but stops short of apologising for the Iraq invasion in 2004.
  • "I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea, who I'm sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity." Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, apologises after he referred to "Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing" in 2006.

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