In my experience as a teacher, students apologize far too much. I think that is troubling, so I try to reframe their ‘failure’ to meet some formal expectation or other as a chance to take control of their own learning.
This text has been cross-published in December 2019 at Unconditional Teaching.
Students constantly apologize to me.
They apologize for ‘disturbing’ me with their questions, they apologize for having questions. They apologize for submitting their paper (late, or right on time, or early). They apologize for missing class because the train was cancelled. They apologize for having the flu. They apologize for being stressed or for having a family emergency.
They write “I’m so sorry”, “I must apologize”, “I have to confess”, “I feel terrible about”, etc. They write “you must be disappointed”, “your inconvenience”, “I understand if you are angry”. In the end, they ask for absolution of one kind or another.
It breaks my heart. Who taught these students that illnesses, accidents, meltdowns, and emergencies are apology-worthy failings which should by right provoke disapproval and punishment instead of well-wishes and offers of support?
I hate seeing students cast themselves in the role of sinners and supplicants and I hate seeing myself being cast in the role of confessor and judge 1, who grudgingly doles out the currency of education only to those who are of sound body and mind, to those who are accident-free and live in happy families. Or to those who always take the train that was not cancelled.
Instead, I assume that students are human beings whom I can trust to always have reasons for breaking parts of the course contract – and I accept all reasons as good reasons. Students don’t owe me personally. I owe them my professional support as a facilitator of learning.
In case of circumstances that keep you from completing assignments, inform me matter-of-factly without apologies and without listing all your reasons – they are none of my business. 2
I will always agree, on an individual basis, to extend your deadlines or assign self-study to make up for missed content, and I will not second-guess your motives.
Please suggest a solution, for example a new deadline which you expect to realistically be able to meet (you can re-negotiate if it again proves impossible), or an alternative task you would like to work on if you have missed an obligatory assignment. Use the opportunity of not being able to achieve a task within the rules stated in the syllabus to take charge of your own learning.
It’s not my job to ‘forgive’ you for ‘failing’ but it is my job to support you in achieving what is possible for you to achieve.
Sometimes, students find it difficult to believe me, and it takes a bit of time for them to actually change their rhetoric.
But when it happens, there is a felicitous shift of power: Instead of apologising and giving me power of judgment and absolution, they take on power over their own learning. They show self-awareness, responsibility, and sound judgement of their own capabilities.
The energy they previously spent worrying about my reaction is now spent on thinking about what kind of self-study they could profit from to make up for lost seminar time, to organize themselves or to prioritize self-care without shame.
“Confessor and judge”: Every apology is double-edged in this way. It puts the apologist at the mercy of the absolver – and it puts an expectation to grant or withhold absolution on the latter’s shoulders; it at the same time bestows power and demands its usage; it interpellates me as punisher of misdeeds. This is troubling for me for two reasons: first, because I don’t want to be given this power (individually, by students) and I don’t think I should be able to have it (systemically, by my position as a teacher). Second, I don’t accept that any of the above circumstances is remotely apology-worthy – because they merely break those parts of the written and unwritten teaching/learning contracts that go along with university education (attendance, course requirements, deadlines, credits) which are purely formal and not personal. This is why, to me, ‘procrastination’ is not structurally different from being ill as a reason for missing work: both are effectively based on a prioritization of how to spend one’s time counter to the formal rules of studying (doing other stuff, getting well again). I accept that human beings are entitled to set these priorities for themselves and I don’t feel entitled to judge them for it. ↩
“None of my business”: None of us working in professional environments is required to disclose personal information to our employers or clients regarding our mental or physical health, our family status, or our ways to get to work. There are good reasons for that. It can help if you understand yourself as clients of the university – you shouldn’t feel obliged to disclose personal information. ↩