The Power of an Apology

The Power of an Apology.

It was one of those days. Actually… it had been one of those semesters. It was one of those impossible battles… where you’re making things work with “shoestrings and duct tape” types of semester. I was tired and battle worn. I had a meeting scheduled with a parent who was not happy because their student was failing …and of course it was the school’s fault. Due to some staffing issues, the class had been unconventional and had a change of teachers, substitutes, and some blended learning.  My staff and I had worked very hard to ensure instruction and learning during the transitions of staffing and had done everything in our power to make it work for the students. It was not perfect but as you do in situations out of your control you do the best that you can.

We had the meeting with a parent who was not happy. In the meeting from the school side was myself, my assistant principal and a teacher. From the start,the meeting quickly went downhill. I began to get agitated. We answered the questions as best we could, dodged the personal attacks and talked about the personal responsibility of the student to complete assignments. It continued down hill. My head started to hurt.

Then to my surprise the teacher who I thought knew the whole situation, started commenting and asking questions which was opposite and started to undermine the school’s position. The parent sensing division in our position pounced. The meeting tumbled further downhill.   I got even more agitated. Then as the teacher talked more it made the situation worse and started to undermine all of the work that my assistant principal had done for this class and students all semester. The parent became more aggressive. The meeting was in a death spiral of flames and smoke. I was beyond agitated but knew that I had to do something to regain control of this meeting quickly and made a decision. I cut the teacher off and told the teacher that they could leave and that they were no longer needed to finish the meeting. The teacher started to protest, and I again cut them off and said “That will be all. Thank you.”

In my mind, I needed to remove the teacher because they were unknowingly feeding into the parent’s complaints, issues and accusations. It worked. After the teacher left, the parent eventually calmed down, we regained control of the meeting and was able to finish the meeting in a somewhat positive nature.  I think we may have “agreed to disagree”. Meeting completed. Issue solved. On to the next waiting problem.

BUT I couldn’t. As I processed the day’s events at the end of my day, the meeting and exchanged bothered me. Why? because although I had won that battle (won is a loose term) … I felt I had made a mistake.

The more I thought about it, although I saved the meeting, I had made several mistakes. The first mistake was that I did not prepared my teacher for the meeting or give the teacher the needed information to be a productive part of the meeting.  This was not my teacher’s fault. The fault was mine as the leader. My assistant principal and I had talked, and we knew the whole story, background and situation. However, I let the teacher come into the meeting blind. That is never good. The leadership lesson that I learned (and still practice to this day)is that in any meeting whether contentious or not, I make sure that all parties understand the purpose of the meeting, the situation, all the available information, the school decision or position and any information needed to participate in the meeting.

The second and larger of the two mistakes was that I regained control of this meeting, but I had done so at the possible cost of embarrassing my teacher. I never want to dismiss or to make a staff member feel dismissed. This teacher was a good teacher and I considered them a good part of our positive school culture.  Anyone that has worked with me knows that I value relationships with the people I work with and serve very highly.

I could have continued with business as usual, but I felt that I made a mistake which needed correction.  The work of education is a hard job and you need good teachers, good people, to fight the fight with you.  I knew that I needed to make it right with the teacher, so the next day I called the teacher to my office.  When the teacher came into my office by their body language and expression, I could tell I had been right.  I believe the teacher was expecting me to write them up, fuss more or to chew them out.

I told the teacher that I wanted to discuss the meeting from yesterday. I told them very honestly what my intention was, but I told them also what it was not.  I continued to say that there were a thousand and one ways to save that meeting and in reflection I felt that I had chosen the wrong one and I apologized. I told the teacher that they were a valued member of our school, school culture and that I appreciated all of the work they did for children at our school. Most important I told the teacher that if anything I did made them feel undervalued, disrespected, or diminished in any way that I was sorry. Immediately, the teacher’s body language shifted, and I saw the tension leave their face and body.

Because I took the time to apologize to this member of my staff, the teacher remained a strong member of my staff and we still enjoy a good professional relationship to this day. I also learned the importance of preparing teachers and staff to enter potentially volatile meetings so they know all of the information and can better respond.

Leaders do not always get everything right or perfect.  Leaders can be wrong. When you make a mistake or error, you must be willingly to apologize when necessary. Some people see apologizing when you are in a leadership position as weak. However,I see it as the complete opposite. Your strength lies in your ability to admit when you are wrong. Apologies from the position of leadership can be powerful lessons for the leader but also powerful demonstrations for those who would follow you.

“I am sorry” can be three of the most powerful words in the leadership. Sometimes they will be accepted and sometimes they may not be accepted but that should not stop you for giving them when necessary. Remember education is a people business and you win with people. An apology can humanize you with your staff and it can repair strained or torn relationships or strengthen relationships. And apologies are not just for the adults …but that’s another blog post entirely.

Please continue to read my blog posts as I continue to reflect on how to lead past mistakes. Please “like” my post, leave comments , follow my blog, and share your stories so that I can continue to learn too.