Tip #5 – Gain trust by apologising when you mess up in class.


What it looks/sounds like:

‘I can see you look upset with me and I think I understand why. How are you feeling?’

‘I’m really sorry. Doing _____ has let you down and made you feel ____. Next time, I’ll ____.’

Why it works

I didn’t believe this when I was a kid, but it turns out that teachers are human. I knew that they made mistakes (and often), but I wasn’t ever aware that they knew they had. Every time they jumped to conclusions and blamed me or broke a promise, my trust slowly ebbed away. Now I’m a teacher, I have first-hand experience of how a sincere apology can gain trust lost through making similar mistakes.

Kids know injustice when they see it

We all want a positive class climate and the last thing we want is to foster a sense of injustice, especially when this could lead to demonstrations of destructive secondary behaviour (I discussed this in a previous post). Despite not being able to socially reason the same way adults do, ‘by the time they reach school age, children possess the ability to take into account the major factors (e.g., intentions, motives, apologies) that are deemed important in adult-like social judgment.’ (Darby and Schlenker; 1982; p472). In reality, this means that our pupils have a razor-sharp awareness of being wronged. It also means apologising can help them to reason, thereby reducing ill-feeling and reestablishing trust. (Darby and Schlenker; 1982).

What’s the best way to apologise in class?

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that apologising is a sign of strength. Having the courage to show your vulnerability helps people relate to you and makes you more likely to be perceived as a good leader (Prime and Salib; 2014). In class, apologising models your ability to learn from mistakes and demonstrates the value of your pupils’ thoughts and feelings.

Apologising successfully is an art rather than a science. There is no scientific formula for what you should do, but successful apologies tend to be characterised by ‘acknowledgment of the mistake or wrongdoing, acceptance of responsibility, expression of regret, and assurance that the offence will not be repeated.’ (Kellerman; 2006). In a class environment, these guidelines may help:

  • Do it when the pupil has calmed down. Ask them how they are feeling so they have a chance to voice their frustrations. An apology before could be considered insincere and fall on deaf ears (Urist, J; 2016). This is a good opportunity to model behavioural expectations on dealing with anger and injustice.
  • Where possible, apologise in private. That way both you and the child can be open and honest without either having to lose face.
  • Acknowledge the body language of the pupil. Helping them to recognise what their body is telling you and can help to regulate their own behaviour (see my post on this here).
  • Explain what you think you did wrong and what you’ll do differently next time.
  • Make sure your body language matches the words you are using. Use open-handed gestures, maintain attention and eye contact and avoid shrugging your shoulders or shaking your head.

These steps should enable you to regain the trust of the offended child, but it’s important to note that people often like the idea of being apologised to more than they actually like receiving the apology (De Cremer et al; 2011). Therefore, it’s unfair to assume that apologising will automatically put right what you did in the eyes of the offended child. Only make promises you know you can keep because you could be held to account on them in other tests of trust.

Cultural values and their influence on apology acceptance

Also, you should consider the cultural values of the pupils you apologise to and their expectations of you as an authority figure. Children from backgrounds with more masculine values (as measured on the masculinity vs femininity index) and a greater power-distance ratio will be more likely to see teachers as figures of unquestionable authority. Therefore, acknowledging mistakes will alter the level of trust in the student/teacher relationship. Cultural background wouldn’t stop me from apologising as I feel it’s too important to the climate I wish to maintain, but I keep it in mind when understanding the thoughts and opinions of the pupil I’m saying sorry to.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably human too and already understand the value of saying sorry. I wish some of my old teachers had the same courage and humility and acknowledge their mistakes by apologising. Maybe I’d have thought they were human too.


De Cremer, D., Pillutla, M. M., & Folmer, C. R. (2011). How important is an apology to you? Forecasting errors in evaluating the value of apologies. Psychological Science, 22(1), 45-48.

Darby, B. W., & Schlenker, B. R. (1982). Children’s reactions to apologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(4), 742.

Kellerman, B. (2006). When should a leader apologize and when not? Harvard Business Review. 84(4):72-81.

Prime, J., Salib, E. (2014) The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders. Harvard Business Review. Accessed 17-04-17.

Urist, J. (2016). The Art and Science of Apologizing. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/how-to-apologize/470457/. Accessed 16-04-17.

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