The Greatest Lesson I Learned As a New Teacher Was the Power of Saying...

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The Greatest Lesson I Learned As a New Teacher Was the Power of Saying ‘I’m Sorry’

By Deitra Colquitt     Dec 1, 2021

The Greatest Lesson I Learned As a New Teacher Was the Power of Saying ‘I’m Sorry’

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

It was a typical weekday at my local grocery store. I was browsing down the aisles to see what I could throw together for dinner when I saw someone who reminded me of a former student. At first, I was unsure if the person I was staring at was my former student, but as the distance narrowed between us, I realized it was him.

I instantly recalled my interactions with his mother and connecting during parent-teacher conferences. She held high expectations not only for her son but his teachers, as well. Like many young males, he struggled with dueling identities of being the “cool kid” and being a high-performing achiever at the risk of becoming unpopular with his classmates. When I approached him, he greeted me with a smile.

I asked, “Do you remember me?”

“Yes, of course!” he said. “You were my teacher in seventh grade.”

I told him, “I can’t believe it. You still look the same!” We both laughed, much like two individuals who had maintained a special connection after many years.

At that moment, I also thought about my early years in the classroom and became engulfed with a mix of emotions, shame being chief among them.

I confessed, “I know I was something else as a teacher.” He then comforted me by saying, "Nah, you were good!" Still, I felt compelled to atone for his experience. “No, for real. I’m sorry. I know I was a bit much at times."

After our conversation, we wished each other well and went our separate ways in the grocery store.

This scenario of running into my students in the community has happened many times over the years, from grocery stores to restaurants and hospitals. Each time, I am immediately transported back to my early teaching experiences and forced to reckon with my past and the lessons I learned since that time. In this instance, I was embarrassed, even ashamed, which is why I needed to apologize.

Throughout my education journey, there were a few times I should have said those words, but at the moment, I didn’t. I needed him to know the mature, experienced educator I have become and how much I wish I knew then what I know now.

Who I Was vs. Who I Needed to Be

Reflecting on my earlier years in education is one thing but writing about it made me think of another cringeworthy experience: learning who I was as an educator.

Throughout my experience as a middle school teacher, I struggled with my presence as an educator, shifting and changing with every new trend presented through professional development and feedback given by well-meaning administrators. I can remember sitting in my classroom management class after being told “not to smile” the first few weeks of school, “don’t be too nice,” or “you have to establish who’s in charge from day one.” This turned out to be some of the worst advice I received as a pre-service teacher.

I took in more information than my brain could process, which showed in my teaching and learning approach. I spent too much time perfecting what I was teaching and how I was teaching without considering who I was teaching.

Ultimately, I lacked the authenticity and courage to elevate my voice and the needs of my students. As a result, my students received an education drastically different from what they—or even I—expected.

Tough Love Isn’t Always the Answer

During my time in the classroom, this situation played out many times: a student would say a sly remark, backtalk, or mumble under their breath (all things I could care less about today), and we would clash right in the middle of class.

This was me expressing “tough love,” and it was wrong on so many levels. Tough love was my way of announcing my adult presence and creating a teacher-centered environment. Students were to be seen and not heard. Students’ ability to question and wonder was a sign of disrespect.

Unfortunately, it took me a bit longer in my career to realize that tough love perpetuates internalized racism and reinforces the idea of controlling students. In my pre-service years, I should have aspired to embody outrageous love, a phrase coined in many education spaces in recent years.

Outrageous love is contagious. In practice, it requires teachers to see students beyond labels, test scores, and socioeconomic status. Looking back, one of my missteps as a classroom teacher was not building deep relationships with my students. While I engaged in surface-level activities to engage students, none of it was enough to see beyond the occasional class disruption when things got tough.

Loving students in challenging moments requires work and understanding. Outrageous love enables you to view students through multiple lenses and see them as people and not behaviors.

Experience is the Best Teacher

As a school leader, I hope to support the teachers I work alongside by sharing and owning up to my mistakes; this is the only way to reconcile my past. I have been fortunate to work with some of the most impressive young people who have taught me way more than I ever taught them. I was developing alongside them, and the person I am today is way different than the person I was in 2003 when I became a middle school ELA teacher. While I know I made many mistakes, they never held them against me and continued to embrace me for years to come.

Paul Laurence Dunbar once wrote, “We wear the mask that grins and lies; it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” It was not until I removed the mask of being an “all-knowing teacher” and “queen of compliance” that I showed up differently for my students.

Now, I share these same lessons with new teachers developing their classroom practice and management skills. When it comes to students, focus on building deep and meaningful relationships and leaving space to express their thoughts. Students thrive when their voices are elevated. This doesn’t take away from you being a teacher—it transforms and shifts the cognitive load to where it belongs: the student. It’s also okay to question things that didn’t make sense for your students. Asking questions is okay, and doing what is right for students will always override doing what’s right for the adults in the room.

Above all, it is never too late for you to apologize. To my former students, thank you for helping me develop as an educator. I have more patience, compassion, and love that I can now pour into my students. If I could package these last ten years and travel back in time, I would because you deserved the person I am today.

Please accept this long overdue apology; I am forever indebted to you.

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