cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Writing apologies for racist classroom actions

About a month before the end of school, I wrote my first apology note for colluding with racism in the classroom. I know this note will not be my last.

I used what I have learned from restorative practices over the years: Speak from the heart. Listen from the heart. Say just enough. Respect the talking piece.

The first thing I did was to listen from the heart. My student had yelled very loudly, "You're being racist!" I had been sure, even in that moment, that there was a level at which he'd been right. I needed to inquire into his perspective and into my own to understand as much as I could about how and why this had been true.

After meditating and reflecting and journaling about what had happened, I wrote him a letter.
Dear ___,
I owe you an apology.
I have been treating you unfairly. I have been calling you out for being disruptive in class more than I have called out others, and I agree with you that that is wrong. I need to not do that, and I pledge to be mindful of that from now on. 
I also realized that I have been pushing you harder than I push some of the other students in our class, and I realize that that is wrong too. My intentions were good ones: I see your brilliance and, as a citizen, I want to recruit people like you into leadership. Our leaders are lost, and my generation has really messed things up. I came back to teaching because teachers are the talent scouts of the future, and our country needs people like you in leadership.
But that is my stuff — not necessarily yours.
After you pointed out my biased treatment of you, I realized that you are right. I have been treating you differently, and that is wrong. It was wrong of me to try to impose my agenda onto you. It is also inconsistent with my own values because it is important to me that you be empowered and respected to choose your own goals and make your own decisions about how to lead your life.
So this letter is my attempt to clean up my own side of the street. From now on, I am going to do a better job of respecting your boundaries and keeping my personal agenda on my own side of the street.
I hope you can accept my apology.
With great respect and affection,
Dr. X
I asked his favorite teacher to give him the letter, knowing that, if I had tried to give it to him myself, he would have simply torn it up without reading it. I am a little ashamed about this part.

But if I am going to be an impeccable warrior in this fight, I need to accept that part too and be ruthlessly honest about moving beyond my own personal likes and dislikes. Everything I do needs to reflect the values I am trying to convey into this world.

My student and I never discussed the letter, but afterwards, I noticed a change in our relationship. For my part, I stayed focused on being as mindful as I could in my efforts to treat him and all students equitably. But I noticed a change in him too. He seemed to start showing up — really showing up —every single day in class after that. He left his earphones and his cell phone in his pocket and he was much more fully present in class than he had been all year. He advocated for his own learning and persevered in ways I had not seen before.

He was not perfect and neither was I. But we became a lot more relaxed around each other, and I got a felt sense that we understood each other a little better. We were both less defended and more porous and receptive to life. We could receive each other's humor better and learn from each other. All in all, we seemed to be moving together more harmoniously toward the goal of learning together. And that was what I truly wanted.

This is the compelling thing about restorative practices for me. They give us a way to continue forward together. I am pretty sure this is why Archbishop Desmond Tutu's memoir is titled, No Future Without Forgiveness. Rage won't heal the world. And an overly defended student cannot adopt an optimal learning posture. Since that is my deepest hope for all students in my classroom, I need to do everything in my power to make it an equitable place for every student so that can happen as often as possible.


  1. Thank you for sharing this. What a beautiful example of humility and gentleness, and what a good reminder to all of us pay close attention to our words and actions in the classroom.

  2. I love this post; it's going in my folder of 'blog posts to remember' - the place where I store those posts that I need to reread periodically as reminders of what great teaching is. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Just now reading this, Elizabeth. Beautiful and inspiring. In those moments that I've been moved to apologize to my students, I always find the results to be positive. It's a humbling process to be sure and takes courage. But it is an excellent way to model that healthy behavior for them as well.