Cleaning Up Collateral Damage

collateral damageMy day started early. The alarm chimed at 4:45 AM, and I rolled out of bed fumbling for my running shorts and shoes as I headed toward the bathroom. On the way I grabbed my phone hoping to check a few emails and do some multi-tasking for school while I prepped for my early morning jog.

Ugh. I saw the name in my inbox and knew this wasn’t how I wanted to start my day. Emails sent from parents in the middle of the night are never a good thing.

I considered waiting to open it. I started to close the Mail app, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else during my run. The unknown contents of the message would haunt my entire workout. With a deep breath I opened the message.

Mr. Cummings,

*Todd came home very upset today about a conversation regarding his makeup work. Todd has missed 4 days of school due to illness last week. He had fever and felt terrible. He was very weak all weekend and could barely keep his head up during dinner tonight! The full school day exhausted him. There was evidently a test  scheduled in your class today, and Todd stated that you expected him to take the test because “you knew what the homework was, Todd; it was online.” I’m not sure how you feel when you are sick with fever, but Todd couldn’t even lift his head to drink enough let alone think about schoolwork.  He certainly wasn’t checking homework on the computer nor was he reading.

He went on to say that you conceded by allowing him to read tonight and take the test tomorrow. He knows he has quite a bit of work to make up, and we are making sure he gets caught up while continuing to do his daily work. He is still not 100%.

This week his PE time is already taken up with other academic commitments so he has no extra time at school. Thank you in advance for  your understanding and allowing him adequate time to get caught up. I can tell you now that he cannot take the test tomorrow as he went straight to sleep after dinner.


Todd’s mom

Yikes! I’d totally blown it. Todd was a great kid and a wonderful student. He always gave his best and did quality work. I had known he’d been out sick, but I hadn’t realized how sick he was. Truthfully, I wasn’t even upset that Todd wasn’t ready to take the quiz. He just caught me at the completely wrong moment. When he walked up to speak with me about his situation, I was already frustrated by another matter. I was having a lousy day. Todd innocently walked into my frustration with horrible timing, and he’d received the brunt of my exasperation. I’d made a sick kid feel worse.

Looking back, I recognized immediately my first reaction to Todd was wrong. That’s why I quickly reconsidered and offered to let him take the quiz the next day. I think I intended for the modifying of my expectations to be an olive branch offering to Todd for my inappropriate response. Todd didn’t need an amendment; he deserved an apology. He deserved a teacher humble enough to own his mistakes. He deserved a better me.

I wrote Todd’s mom the following message:

I will apologize to Todd today. He bore the brunt of some other frustration and that wasn’t fair. Todd is a good student, and he is conscientious about his work. I really didn’t mean to speak harshly to him or make him feel bad. I was irritated over another matter (not related to Todd), and he walked into it unfortunately.

Todd can make up the reading and take the quiz sometime next week (the book is very short). I really wasn’t upset or frustrated with him. He just caught me at the wrong moment on a bad day, but that’s really no excuse. I’ll speak with him today and try to make things right. Again, I’m sorry; please accept my apology. My reaction wasn’t intentional, but it was an over reaction and wrong. Thank you for letting me know I upset him so that I can fix my mistake. He’s a great kid, and I enjoy having him in class.


Philip Cummings

Later that morning, I met Todd at the top of the stairs entering our class hallway. I apologized for my behavior explaining that I was wrong to treat him that way and that I really wasn’t frustrated with him. I thanked him for being such a dedicated hard-worker and told him that he had more than enough “deposits in the Mr. Cummings bank” to make a few withdrawals when needed. Todd smiled, accepted my apology, and appeared to understand. His parents were gracious enough to accept my apology, too. I appreciate such grace.

As a teacher (and as a parent), sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge my mistakes—to admit when I’m wrong, when I’m petty—to admit I’m fallen and broken. I want to be the best teacher I can be. My students deserve the best, and on some days, my best may just be an apology.

 *Todd is not the student’s real name.

10 thoughts on “Cleaning Up Collateral Damage”

  1. How wonderful and brave that you immediately recognized your mistake, was willing to “fail up,” and apologized not only to the child, but to the parents. You serve as a model to other teachers who need to feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Angél. It was a difficult post to write and share publicly, but I appreciate the encouragement that I’ve received from John and Bill to be more open and transparent. I’m working on it.

    1. Thank you. This post has been rattling around inside me for awhile as I gathered the courage to share it.

  2. Great post and a needed reminder for all of us who get tired toward the end of tough days. Sometimes when we think students need to learn “responsibility” they actually need to experience the transformative power of grace, kindness, and compassion, which actually teaches them so much more. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read, comment, and share the post, Bret. I really appreciate it. I want to treat my students the way I’d like to be treated. Unfortunately, I don’t always live up to that. I also want them to own up to their mistakes so I have to own up to mine.

  3. Loved this, Pal.

    The truth of the matter is that when we refuse to apologize to students even when we know that we are wrong — something FAR too many teachers are guilty of — we lose credibility in the eyes of everyone.

    Thanks for the reminder that being human is absolutely normal — we all have bad days — but that being human ALSO involves apologizing after we’ve done something that hurts others.

    Rock right on,

    1. Thanks, Bill. I hope I’ll have the courage to apologize more often, but I also hope I’ll have the self-awareness to know when I’m making these types of blunders.

  4. I appreciate your candid and honest look back at a difficult moment in your day. You gained a lot of credibility to everyone in demonstrating your human side to Todd & his family by apologizing, and meaning it asap rather than avoiding and letting it eat you, Todd, and his family up.

    1. Thanks, Hugh. I’m grateful that Todd’s mom confronted me and gave me the chance to make things right. She very easily could have gone straight over my head and put me on the defensive by having a conversation with someone else ABOUT me rather than having it WITH me. I’m grateful she was kind and gracious enough to approach me. I hope I’ll keep that perspective the next time I receive a “during the night” email.

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