Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Many years ago, I taught a student who became, for various reasons, a serious challenge to me in my attempt to teach in a particular class. For reasons of anonymity, I will not use her name, nor will I provide any clues as to when she was in my class, or what grade it was. I don't normally write about experiences with students because I don't wish to cause emabarrassment or shame ... to either the students or to myself. But, I wish to prove a point with this anecdote.

The student in question had many issues, serious and real. She had been a challenge to other teachers before me, and, I suspect, long after me. It became increasingly more difficult to teach not only her, but the other students in this class because of her inappropriate behaviour. I used all the tried and true methods of class control and tried several interventions involving her parents and the school's administration. Everyone concerned became increasingly frustrated with her behaviour.

It got to the point where she would not be able to last more than a few minutes in the classroom before she displayed some type of inappropriate behaviour. I would have to take some kind of action, and, inevitably, she was sent to the office frequently. The particular vice principal who handled her case was also at wit's end. Nothing seemed to work.

And then, a miracle happened. The student apologised for a particular behaviour she exhibited. It was the first time she had done this. Everyone was pleased: the vice principal thought it was a real breakthrough, the student's parents were encouraged ... even I was at least mollified to some degree. I agreed to let the student come back to class, in the hope that the apology was the educational equivalent of the conversion on the road to Damascus.

We had, I recall, about three days' relative peace. Then, another inappropriate behaviour. I was inclined to give the student a bit more slack because of the previous breakthrough, but it was merely a futile hope. Her behaviour deteriorated to the point where I had to, once again, remove her from the classroom and send her to the office in order to be able to continue my lesson with the rest of the class. Predictably, I was called to the office at the end of the day, where the student was in the office of the vice principal, crying and acting so contrite. Another apology flowed forth. I looked at the VP, who looked back at me with eyebrows upraised, as though in surrender.

Back into the class next day, and we had at least a day of peace. Then, another breach of classroom etiquette, another reprimand, another trip to the office, another meeting, another apology. Back to class, where another breach of classroom etiquette followed, with another reprimand, another trip to the office .... you get the drift.

After about a month of this, the VP got the hint and withdrew the girl from my class and set her up in a special ed situation in order to get her to try to earn a credit. I breathed a sigh of relief, my class became an actual pleasure to teach because the other kids settled down, and I listened with great compassion to the spec ed personnell who had to deal with this student. I understand the student frequently apologised for regular breaches of classroom etiquette in the spec ed room.

Apologies are easy. For some people, it becomes apparent that saying sorry is all they have to do in order to continue to act the way they want. They become finely attuned to the inability of a system or even society in general to effectively deal with abberent behaviour. The words of apology become perfected with practice, the body language suitably shrunken, even the tears look real. But they are only words and acting. Anyone can learn to do this.

And, once learned, the act can be repeated ad nauseum in order to get what the practitioner wants. Inevitably, the goal for the practitioner is attention. Why? For it's own sake. The habitual apologist is a narcissist par excellence. In order to feed this narcissism, bad behaviour is repeated in order to get a reprimand, in order to perform the neatly choreographed apology and have all eyes and ears on the narcissist. Success !!

I do not truthfully know what became of this student. I do know that she was in our school for at least one more year after my attempt to teach her, although never again in my class. It was the strangest thing. Every time I passed her in the hallway, she had the biggest smile and the warmest greeting for me. In front of other students, she actually said that I was her favourite teacher. My sarcasm radar was going into overdrive with all of this. But I could never actually detect any sign or hint of sarcasm or cynicism or negativaty in her voice, her expression or her actions. I was not convinced of her act, of course. But, I had to admit, this kid was good.

This leaves us with rather unsettling questions. When is an apology enough to settle a dispute? How does one actually know when an apologist is actually sorry ? Are words alone enough ? Or must some kind of act of contrition accompany the words ?

There are no answers. But, to the majority of us, when a person continually apologises for repeated bad behaviour, words are most certainly not enough.