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    Teachers Change Policies: Apologizing to Students in Class

    Whether they mean to or not, teachers often have a significant impact on their students. And sometimes, students have a significant impact on their teachers, too. With this in mind, we asked teachers of the BuzzFeed Community to share experiences they’ve had with students that not only opened their eyes but compelled them to change something about how they conduct their classes. Many teachers came forward with simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming stories, so here are some of them below:.
    It was a grade one-to-two class. The first time I asked the class a question, a student gave me a totally wrong answer. I replied, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ and watching eagerness turn to disappointment was enough to never say an answer is wrong again. I felt physically sick. Now, I say something like, ‘It’s going in the right direction but not there yet,’ ‘I can see how you might think that,’ or, ‘I like that you are looking for a connection to what you already know.’
    The day one of my seventh graders broke down because they couldn’t get their homework done changed everything for me. Their mom and dad worked three jobs apiece, there were four other kids in the house, and this kid took care of all of them while the parents were working. It’s been six years, and I haven’t given homework since then.
    “In 1991, during my first year teaching, I fussed at a student for not completing his homework. At the end of the class, another student stayed back, shook her head at me, and said, ‘His lights got cut off yesterday.’ I’m still in education, and I have never fussed at another student about not completing homework.”
    classroom desks
    When I was student teaching, my mentor teacher used a clip chart. (Students get their clip moved down the chart for ‘bad behavior’ and up for ‘good behavior’). In my first year as a teacher, I also used one, as that was what I was taught for classroom management. One day, I had a student move their clip down, and they were devastated. A little boy in my class said, ‘Don’t cry, I always get clipped down. You get used to being the bad kid after a while.’ My heart broke that something I did had caused a child to believe that he was a bad child. I took the clip chart down right then and there, and I told that little boy that he wasn’t a bad person and that I was so sorry I had made him feel that way.
    High school English teacher here. As a student, my teachers often did ‘popcorn’ reading, where students would read aloud and then pass the reading to their peers by saying, ‘Popcorn, [name].’ It was a fun way to keep students engaged. So, when I began student-teaching, I decided to have students popcorn-read a passage from a novel. During one particular instance, a student popcorned to his classmate, who appeared visibly embarrassed and hesitant before reading aloud. Within seconds, it became evident that this student struggled with a form of dyslexia. He stumbled over numerous words and relied on guessing based on the first few letters. Realizing how potentially humiliating this could be for students facing reading challenges, I made a change. Now, I read passages aloud myself and then give students the option to read aloud if they wish.
    I was thoughtlessly using the phrase ‘parents’ in my classroom until, during my second year teaching, I had a transfer student who was a foster child. Because he had been bounced around, he was very withdrawn and not interested in connecting. The first time I said ‘parents,’ I saw him look away. I felt awful because I just hadn’t been thinking. From then on, I said ‘your grown-up.’ The very next time I sent something home, I said, ‘Your grown-up…’ and he smiled a little. After, he began opening up a little in class and even made a couple of friends. It was a little thing for me to do, and it really helped him feel a sense of sameness with his peers.
    I noticed that every time we did group work, one student would never get chosen until all the groups were full and some group had to take them. From that point on, I have never let students pick their groups or partners. I choose them all.
    Once, a student was given detention for wearing a sweater that wasn’t the proper school sweater. I found her crying in the classroom later that day, and she told me she couldn’t afford the school sweater. The next day, I kept a stock of school sweaters in the back of the room for anyone who couldn’t afford them.
    I’m a high school teacher with a chic and fashion-forward approach. When I first started, I made a conscious effort to stay out of the students‘ ‘drama‘ and solely focus on providing top-notch education. However, there was one student who caught my attention. At first, I perceived her as dramatic because she often shed tears. Little did I know, her tears were a result of a traumatic experience at home. She bravely protected her disabled brother from her violent stepfather, and Child Protective Services was planning to remove her from that hostile environment. Realizing the depth of her struggles, I implemented a compassionate policy in my classroom. I created a safe space called the ‘Quiet Room’, where students can retreat when they’re having a bad day. They know that they can discreetly ask or simply point to the closet, and then sit inside with the door propped open. There, they can find solace, sleep, or just chill out.
    Last year, during parent/teacher conferences, I was reviewing data on a student’s reading progress. Unfortunately, he was about two years behind. I asked his mother what kind of reading he did at home, and she scoffed and said none. I was taken aback because I think reading is very important, but she then explained to me that she works 14 hours a day at a restaurant, and her son did his virtual learning in a booth there. I didn’t know that because he always had his camera off. She told me that she only has Sundays off and they were spent cleaning, doing laundry, and cooking. It really made me consider that not everyone shares my priorities. Of course, she wants what’s best for her child, but she is in survival mode. This realization shook me, and I think about her often.
    I remember one student solving a long division problem differently than taught in class and getting marked wrong, even though he got the correct answer. I also remember having this exact same scene play out in my childhood as my parents are first-generation Americans. I decided that instead of marking the work incorrectly, I would have these kids teach me and the rest of the class their methods, and students could use whichever was better for them. One method of solving a math problem is not the be-all-end-all like most teachers teach. Several students have immigrant parents and are taught how to solve math problems according to their country’s method.
    After discovering that some of my students were transgender but felt too frightened to use anything other than their birth names and previous pronouns, I incorporated a section for preferred names and pronouns into a ‘Getting to Know You’ assignment that I distribute at the start of the school year. This information is only visible to me, and I discreetly inquire if I can address them by their preferred name and pronouns during class. This small action has had a tremendous impact on these students, and implementing it is a simple and effective way to show support and inclusivity.
    When I initially started teaching, I believed that it was essential to inform parents whenever a student encountered a challenging day. However, there was a particular incident that opened my eyes. I made a phone call to a student’s home, concerned about their well-being, only to discover the following day that they had arrived at school with visible bruises from a violent altercation at home. That moment was a turning point for me. I realized that unless it was absolutely necessary, it was crucial to maintain confidentiality within the school walls.
    telephone on desk
    During parent-teacher conferences, a parent once told me how grateful she was that I grade using vibrant and stylish markers with smiling faces instead of Xs. She explained that her son despised the color red because his previous teacher would mark his assignments with big, red Xs. In my classroom, her son returned home with a much brighter attitude, proudly displaying his cheerful and fashionable markings.
    I teach high school English. One year, I had a student with a pretty severe anxiety disorder. Their parents told me it was so bad they might not even ask to go to the bathroom if they needed to go. To make sure they felt comfortable, at the start of the year, I told all students that they were old enough to go to the bathroom without having to ask permission. I also added that if they just needed a break or to stretch their legs, they were free to leave the classroom as well. I was a bit worried about students taking advantage of this, but no one did. The feedback they gave me was that they felt respected. The original student’s parents told me it really helped their kid feel more comfortable and autonomous. Now, I do it every class.
    One of my students was relocating to a different district and had inadvertently failed to return a paperback novel (likely valued at less than $10). My department head at the time had a strict policy regarding material returns, so I informed the student that they needed to arrange for the book to be brought to school. Unfortunately, the student’s father arrived visibly impaired, presumably under the influence of alcohol, in order to return the book. It was truly a distressing situation for the student, and I deeply regretted being part of it. This experience taught me two important lessons: 1.) The welfare of children should always take precedence over material possessions. 2.) Children lead intricate lives, sometimes fraught with challenges and complexities.
    I used to teach writing using a Standard American English rubric, so I expected my students to work toward mastering the formal language. One semester, I had a student whose writing was brilliant beyond his years, insightful and witty, but he couldn’t seem to grasp the mechanics of formal writing. When I sat down with him one on one to discuss where he could improve, he pointed out the rules from AAVE (African American Vernacular English) he was using. It became really obvious that this kid was doing great, he just spoke another dialect of English at home. After that, I changed my curriculum so students would be graded on their mastery of English as a whole, not just the privileged standard version.
    As a teacher, I’ve never shied away from calling home. However, it became a daily part of the job during the pandemic. Between the more frequent phone calls and video conferences I was holding with my students, I became more intimately acquainted with their homes. I learned quickly that more of my students than I’d ever imagined were living in dirty, loud, and smoke-filled homes. It was common for others in the home to yell, curse, walk by on camera with no shirt on, and demand the student get off the computer during class to go walk a dog, watch a sibling, or run an errand. I even had numerous parents scream at me on camera in front of an entire class. After that, I decided I will never be firm about a due date again, and every kid will have the chance to re-submit work. I don’t know how they get anything done in those homes, and I won’t be the teacher who holds them accountable when they’re struggling to focus in places like that.
    I’ve been teaching students with disabilities, including intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, autism, TBI, and OHI. My students are high school-aged but cognitively and sometimes emotionally function at preschool to third-grade levels. A lot of my students have ADHD or exhibit stimming behaviors. I used to be super strict about making sure the kids were exhibiting ‘normal peer behavior,’ which essentially meant I was refusing them from participating in activities that calmed and regulated them. I started following an autism advocacy page on Facebook and learned so much about how what I was doing was actually harmful. I now don’t care if my students stim or need to regulate themselves in a non-traditional way to what schools expect.
    I had my first trans student whose name on record clearly did not match their identity. It made me reconsider how I called roll on the first day of class — because the last thing I wanted to do was out someone. Now, I call first-day roll by last name, and I ask each student to share their preferred name and pronouns (doing my part to normalize that!). I’ve since had several other trans students who have told me that they really appreciated the discretion.
    I teach college math and used to have strict attendance policies — the ‘four or more absences gets you an F’ kind. After a few years, I realized I didn’t care that much about it, and my policy didn’t cause any student to change their behavior. However, it did hurt the ones who have a lot going on in their lives, whether that be multiple jobs, families, etc. Now, students get what they get, regardless of how often they come to class, and I offer minimal attendance credit as a reward.
    It’s been more than 20 years later, but I’ll never forget a graduating student from about 15 years ago who came by my class to say goodbye. After exchanging pleasantries (and a thank you for letting me eat lunch in your room every day), he told me about the relentless bullying gay students faced at our high school. I was gobsmacked; I truly had no idea. When I asked him why he didn’t confide in me during any of the many lunch periods he spent in my room, he said, ‘Because it’s just how it is here.’ That conversation so shook me to my core that it started my lifelong journey to be a visible and vocal ally both inside and outside of the classroom.
    During my first year teaching, two of my much older mentors guided me toward nit-picky rules, like not giving students pencils or refusing to accept late work. I thought that was how you did things — until I realized that some kids truly don’t have someone at home giving them school supplies, checking their homework, and a hundred other variables. Now, I give supplies out freely.
    This one was actually with a parent. One year, I had a teenage student with traumatic brain injury due to shaken baby syndrome. Their father was a rigid police officer with seemingly no empathy or patience, so I assumed he was somehow involved in the incident that caused the disability. Turns out, the person who caused it was their teenage babysitter. These parents will have to support their child for the rest of their life due to one fateful night trying to share some time together. It taught me to never judge the parents.
    I think all my students impact my teaching in some way as every student learns and behaves differently. However, the biggest change I’ve made is giving students the chance to share. It seems so simple but makes such an impact. It started with a student notorious for acting out. I had him for a 90-minute reading lesson, and other teachers told me stories about his behavior. When I started class, he raised his hand, so I let him share. He then told a five-minute story about his family and, afterward, participated well in the lesson. I then started doing this for all of my students. It takes time, but I’ll give up 10 minutes of my lesson for student engagement. My goal is to meet them where they are and learn what works best for them. It’s such a great way to build relationships, and students love it when you follow up with them like, ‘How was your soccer game yesterday?’ Kids just want you to listen sometimes.
    My first time working in a primary special ed class opened my eyes to the need for preferential seating. Many children couldn’t sit still in their chairs for a minute, and I was losing my patience. One day, my student said her brain wouldn’t let her sit still no matter how much she tried to tell it to. A lightbulb went off in my head. I should’ve known this! I then got floor cushions, exercise balls, and more for them to sit on during class and even let them lie down on rugs while writing or reading. They can also stand or do stretches to get their wiggles out. It helped the kids immensely.
    My first year as a teacher, I constantly prompted my off-task third-grade student, even going as far as to actually tap his paper. Then, one day, I watched him work on a problem that no one had solved. He was diligent in his work, trying again and again until he eventually found the answer. As a class, we celebrated. As a teacher, I learned to open my mind (and my eyes) to what learning can look like. I never tapped another paper.
    I’m a special education teacher for students with severe disabilities. I’ve learned over the years that offering choice is huge (i.e. ‘Do you want to do this now or in five minutes?’ ‘Do you want to do it yourself or do you want help?’ ‘Do you want to sit in the blue chair or the red chair?’). Offering a choice, even if it seems like the smallest thing, can be so empowering and teach important life and independent skills. Neurotypical children have the privilege of making countless choices a day, and we take that away from our disabled students.
    Distance learning was hard. My frustration was evident, as was the frustration of my kids on a daily basis, so we implemented a social-emotional curriculum. One lesson focused on identifying our emotions, naming them, and calming down. We practiced as a class often, but it was so much more effective when I actually used those strategies in front of my kids when I was frustrated. Rather than just teaching them, I started doing each calm-down strategy. My kids started doing it, and parents mentioned how it helped at home.
    College professors give anywhere from two to five exams in a class. We try to space them evenly apart, but every professor is doing the same thing, so students often have multiple exams in the same week or day. Sure, we want them to be disciplined and organized enough to handle an exam load like that — we tell them ahead of time when their tests will be — but that’s still asking a lot of young adults who are learning discipline and organization but don’t necessarily have the skill yet. So to help them practice, I tell them on the first day to look at all of their class, athletic, social, etc. schedules for the semester, identify any points when they think they will have a hard time juggling everything, and let me know in the first three weeks of class if they want to reschedule any of their exams with me, no questions asked. It gets more students to look ahead and plan, and their reward for doing so is a bit of the burden being taken off their backs.
    Hunger! So many kids are hungry during the school day. Some of my students have blood sugar problems, don’t have food at home, and can’t afford lunch. Some are just growing a lot. I’ve had snacks available for students to eat for years. I don’t make them ask for them, and not a single student has ever taken advantage of it.
    As a pre-K teacher, I’m very accustomed to the tantrums and other difficulties that come with the job, but this one kid changed everything. He had faced difficulties in school since he was an infant, biting, hitting, etc. By the time I had him, he was killing worms during outside time, and spitting on, hitting, and kicking other students and teachers. He’d even throw heavy objects at people. He’d do everything in his power to instigate with other students and disrupt the classroom. He’d also often ask us what would ‘dead’ us, offering eerily graphic hypotheticals. In response to his apparent lack of empathy and remorse, we (my teaching team) modified and instituted the teddy bear curriculum which emphasizes creating habits of respect, communication, mindfulness, reflection, boundary-setting, etc. It helped the class as a whole in beautiful and observable ways.
    I’m an elementary PE teacher in the South. It’s really easy to just split up boys and girls to make teams. One day, a student came to me and said, ‘What if we’re non-binary?’ I didn’t even think about that. Since then, I’ve stopped making teams based on gender.
    I have always strived to create an inclusive classroom environment, especially during the holiday season, where I teach my students about different celebrations. It is important to me that both the students and I feel excited about this time of year. However, it wasn’t until I started teaching in a low-income area that I truly realized how privileged it is to celebrate the holiday season. My fellow grade-level teachers and I organized a $5 gift exchange with the students, but unfortunately, only a third of my class was able to bring anything, leaving the others feeling left out. In that moment, I quickly gathered some gifts for the students who didn’t have presents, but I have learned from that experience. Every child deserves to feel valued and included, and no one should ever be made to feel less than others.
    During student teaching, I learned to always love the kid no one likes extra hard. I had a student in my class that all teachers spoke ill of. He was ‘never going to amount to anything.’ All year, I went out of my way to treat him like he was super smart and capable of anything. I was the only class he ended up turning anything in for that year, and he really was brilliant. Students will generally rise to your expectations, whatever they are, so I always look for my outliers now; the ones who need someone to see them, fight for them, and believe in them, especially when no one else will.
    College prof here. I had a student who, at first glance, seemed like they were never paying attention — not participating, always on their phone, leaving class all the time, etc. One day, I confronted them about it and asked why they were acting like they didn’t want to be there. Their answer totally changed the way I view student behavior. They apologized and told me they had anxiety about walking back to their dorm by themselves in the dark — it was a night class — so they’d get progressively anxious and scared during class and couldn’t concentrate. As a woman who’s felt the exact same way walking home in the dark, I totally understood. From then on, if we ever had one-on-one meetings or split the class in half, I always scheduled this student towards the beginning so they could walk home in the light.
    I teach eighth-grade math. This past year was a struggle for many students. However, I had one student who seemed to be struggling more so than others. When given an assignment, this student would turn it in blank every single time. Turns out, he had incredibly severe anxiety, and seeing all of the problems on the paper would cause him to shut down. He knew how to solve the problems but couldn’t show me how he got the answer. So for the next quiz, I had the teacher assistant monitor the class while I took this student to a separate room and verbally gave him the problems one at a time. He was able to verbally walk me through each problem correctly. I’m now adding a question to my beginning-of-the-year student survey: ‘How do you prefer to demonstrate your math abilities? Via pen and paper assignments or verbal demonstration?’
    scrap work and scantron for a math test
    Every day of my life teaching high school, I was the one who learned from my students. I’m never my best during the first period, so I initially didn’t do well with late students. One day, I got upset with a student who came late. In talking to her, I learned that every morning, she had to get all of her siblings up, dressed, and to school because her mother was not able to help. She taught me to be humble, ask questions, and, most of all, not assume that students (children) don’t care or don’t want to be at school. I apologized to her, in front of the class, and thanked her for reminding me that compassion, communication, and listening are the most important parts of teaching. It changed my view of the people I was responsible for.
    I teach a foreign language in middle school, and I don’t call on students — no popsicle sticks, no cold calls, no calling on kids who aren’t paying attention. So many students expressed their anxiety about speaking in front of the class to me that I took raising your hand out of my participation policy. As long as you’re willing to talk to classmates in a group setting and to me one-on-one, you get 100% for participation in my class.
    I am a primary teacher. One of my students was in a car accident with her mother. Unfortunately, her mother passed away. I am now fully aware of the many different kinds of families out there and try to steer clear from the ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘parents’ language. I also am not going to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day like we usually do. Too many kids out there don’t have a mom or dad to celebrate, and I think it is incredibly important to consider that.
    I teach drama at a performing arts high school. In my first year, I had a student who never wanted to do anything. She would come in late and was generally disengaged. After three weeks, I told her, ‘It’s pretty hard to fail drama, but you’re getting there.’ Later, while working on a scene with a group, she refused to do anything performance-related but asked if she could get credit by building a prop for her scene (her group needed a bouquet). I okayed it but said it had to be worthy of credit. Twenty minutes later, she presented the most beautiful and intricate bouquet I’ve ever seen. It was made entirely out of paper and a paper towel roll. I asked her if she had any interest in working behind the scenes, and, for the next three years, she worked on every show and stayed after school to help build scenery. She even stage-managed two productions. It made me realize that students aren’t bored, you just haven’t figured out how to engage them yet.
    I was a TA for an ethnographic course that included a lot of discussions. The students were insightful and had great participation grades; the issue was their papers. Many had ‘improper’ grammar. The professor and I were frustrated because we knew how smart these kids were, so he had me hold meetings with each student to help them. Now, the papers were written in a narrative, storytelling style, so the students were writing about their own experiences in the first person. It then dawned on me that the majority of the students were Black, and the papers were grammatically correct in AAVE. I realized we were putting expectations on the students that didn’t match their personal experiences and brought it up with the professor. I pointed out that books in the first person are usually written in the way the narrator naturally speaks and thinks. My professor agreed it was unfair and changed the way he graded, and we noticed a difference in students‘ confidence.
    TA and professor discussing a paper
    I’m a teacher in a pediatric behavioral/mental health program. I recently had a student who exuded a chic and fashion-forward style. According to his file, he had a history of threatening violence and eloping from the classroom. One day, he became extremely upset because his black marker ‘wasn’t black enough.’ Despite our attempts to reason with him, he was inconsolable. Recognizing the need to give him space, we allowed him time to calm down. Surprisingly, he eventually returned to the classroom and everything was back to normal. However, a few days later, he encountered an issue with his lunch and declared that he was going home. Without hesitation, he walked out of the building. Without causing a scene, we calmly explained to him that he might get lost if he tried to find his way home. We suggested contacting his mother for assistance with his lunch situation or transportation. To our amazement, he willingly came back inside, became engrossed in a project, and completely forgot about going home. It turned out that he was on the spectrum, which shed light on his unique behavior.
    Little boy in class
    I used to represent kids in the juvenile justice system. Sometimes, I’d help them enroll back into school when they got out of jail. Most schools didn’t want them and didn’t hide it. I took one kid to tour a school, and I’ll never forget it. He’d been through a lot and was a tough guy, but that whole tour, they were so awful to us. He kept shrinking closer to me until he was glued to my side. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He cried in my car about how ‘they don’t want [him] here’ and ‘[he] should just drop out.’ It broke my heart. This continued until our sixth school. There, the principal had clearly read the file I sent. She knew his name, came out to greet us, and showed us around. She was so welcoming and genuinely happy to help him get back into school. She kept up with him the whole time he was there, called me when he was struggling, and clearly cared. I don’t know who cried more when he graduated, her or me.
    graduating high school students throwing their caps in the air
    My high school science teacher changed his bathroom policy to be more inclusive and understanding. Previously, he did not allow anyone to go to the bathroom during his class. However, one day, a girl had to ask him for permission to go to the bathroom. When he initially refused, she had to privately inform a male teacher that she had just started her period and desperately needed to use the bathroom. This incident made him realize the importance of considering different circumstances, and he promptly adjusted his policy.
    When I started teaching, one of my students came out as trans. I hadn’t thought that an angsty, emo, purple-haired student would be the one to connect with me, a conventionally preppy, milquetoast teacher. She opened my eyes to my own prejudices and, among other things, taught me to be careful with subtle gendered and exclusive language. Instead of asking a girl, ‘Is there a guy you have a crush on?’ I could ask, ‘Is there someone special you have your eye on?’.’
    high school hallway
    It was my first year teaching at a Philadelphia public school, and our school had a uniform policy that banned hooded sweatshirts. I had one student who came into class every day with a hoodie and refused to take it off. Being a first-year teacher, I was told to not seem weak and be consistent in enforcing rules, so each day he came in with the sweatshirt, I’d ask him to remove it. He wouldn’t, and I’d call a dean to have him removed from class. It was a toxic loop that went on for a few weeks. Finally, a veteran teacher came to talk to me. She told me she knew that this particular student was experiencing intermittent houselessness and was currently at a spot that did not have heat. ‘This baby is cold, not defiant,’ she said. It smacked me like a Mack truck.
    During my second year teaching, I had a student who’d often be disruptive, silly, and generally a pain. He often wanted my attention, so I gave him a notebook and said he could write in it whenever he finished his independent work, and I’d look at it when I wasn’t teaching. I was absolutely floored by some of his writing. He wrote about others wanting him to be tough but how that wasn’t in his heart and wanting to make better behavioral choices. He’d even apologize for acting out and ask if I read what he wrote. I assured him I did, and this became a journal where he could express himself, and I could reinforce that I knew he was a good kid and believed in him and his ability to make good choices. Having this connection allowed me to level with him when issues came up, and I saw improvements in his behavior. He was in first grade but acted like an angsty teen in a 7-year-old’s body. Later, I found out about some messed-up things happening at home.
    When I became a teacher, I had to do a 20-hour practicum in a sixth-grade class with a particularly tough set of kids. Once, when I assigned homework, only two of the seven kids completed it. Naturally, I took on my ‘teacher face’ and asked why they didn’t do their work. There were excuses like, ‘I didn’t have paper at home,’ ‘I had too much work to do in the house,’ and, ‘I didn’t know how.’ I replied, ‘Why didn’t you ask your parents for help? I’m sure they would have helped if you’d asked,’ and told them they could always take paper from another notebook. Only one kid spoke up, and his answer will never leave my memory as long as I live. He said, ‘You have to be one of those cookie-baking, PTA mothers who cook dinner every night and do laundry and shit like that, huh?’ I said yes, I’d baked my share of cookies and tried to fix supper when I wasn’t too tired.
    Thank you so, so much to these educators and the countless others out there giving such empathy, respect, and compassion to our students. They have such an impact on these children’s lives and deserve so much (like better wages!). If you have a similar experience or any comments to share, tell us below!

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