hand me my millstone

January 28, 2011

Last night, I told a group of people that I have, on occasion, apologized to my students for something I had done to wrong them.

One jaw dropped immediately to the floor.  “You do WHAT?!  That’s revolutionary!”  This man went on to say how he might have turned out differently as an adult had his teachers humbled themselves to apologize to him.

Honestly, I would have never categorized this behavior as revolutionary. But the more I listened to this man’s story, the more I realized that he was on to something.  In general, if a teacher says something unkind, uses a biting tone, ignores a needy student, or any other little sins that are so easy to commit daily in a classroom, the teacher is loath to admit to it.  The teacher dismisses the moment as another of life’s hard lessons children will have to learn anyway or files it under the dangerous belief, “I’m the teacher, so I must maintain all appearances of complete authority.”  Teachers can rationalize their mistakes in a host of creative ways.  How do I know this?  Because I’ve done it.

But early on in my teaching career, my conscience–conspiring with the Holy Spirit, no doubt–would not let me dismiss these seemingly small sins against the children I was teaching.  Gnawing thoughts prevented me from sleeping.  I would lie awake at night, going over and over the situation in my mind, trying to explain away my misgivings, trying to imagine how the child interpreted my words and actions, trying to imagine a way I could have done things differently.

The resolution to my sleepless nights–and to my less-than-honorable behavior–was to simply own up to it.  Within 24 hours, if possible.  Within the same school day, ideally.  On more occasions than I can count, I have pulled a student aside, looked him or her in the eyes, and said something like, “When I spoke to you earlier today, I used a harsh tone with you.  I am sorry.  I should have spoken to you differently.”  The child always accepts my apology, and his or her face seems to light up, ever-so-slightly.  I would like to think this is the look that says, “She values me!”

Some might say that this undermines my authority as a teacher.  I say it establishes trust in my relationships with students.  It shows them that I, too, am human.  It provides me the opportunity to be an example of honesty and humility.

The root of the opposing belief is that we adults do not always recognize children as honorable.  We consider them half-souls: not fully developed in their personhood, so not yet fully worthy of honor.  But the truth is, the soul of each child is fully developed in the mind of God, well before they ever make their entrance on this earth as infants.

I am coming to terms with this heavy realization: the things I do and say today influence what these children will believe about themselves tomorrow.  I consider it a very serious responsibility to shape the lives of children not just in what they know, but in the character they are developing.  Jesus made the gravity (pun intended) of this responsibility pretty clear:  “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2).  So if something I do or say leads a child to believe that he or she is unworthy, unloved, or worse, hand me my millstone.

In the meantime, I’m prepared to apologize to little, complete souls who need to hear it.


One comment

  1. Allison,

    This. Is. Wonderful. I wish all teachers could read it and feel the same. Thank you!

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