The Value Of Saying “I’m Sorry”: A Step Towards A Growth Mindset

I still remember the first time I walked into Yankee stadium. I was eight years old, with my father, and walking on air. At eight you idolize your dad, a stage in life before you see your parents’ flaws, before you realize that they’re human just like everyone else. At eight years old your dad is bigger than life; at least for me, mine was.

Walking into that stadium was magical. I still remember how green the grass was, the smell of the hotdogs, and how small I felt being in such an immense place. I remember the excitement and awe. In fact, when I reminisce, I can almost touch that special feeling in my stomach.

I had been looking forward to the game for weeks. The night before I could barely contain my excitment, hoping to get a glimpse of my favorite players–Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, and Graig Nettles. When the day finally arrived I insisted that we leave early enough to get to batting practice in hopes of obtaining the holy grail of fans…a ball!

We walked down to our seats for batting practice and I couldn’t believe how close we were to the players on the field. I was shy back then and a bit overwhelmed by my father‘s personality and presence. I was small and lived in his shadow, both literally and figuratively. I was trying my best to jockey for position near the fence, trying to get close in hopes of getting a ball. Crack of the bat after crack of the bat, I continued to come up short.   

My eyes started to well up as batting practice wound down without me obtaining a ball. Frank–my father–must have noticed my disappointment because I started to hear a loud deep growl that shook the stadium. At first I didn’t know who it was or what they were saying, but then I realized it was Frank bellowing out in his deep Italian voice, “Mickeyyyyy…Mickeyyyyyy…Mickeyyyyy.”

Those sitting next to us looked at this large Italian man screaming at the field; they couldn’t understand what drugs he may be on or how many beers he may have had. But my father didn’t drink or do drugs. He was motivated by attention, accolades, and power.

To my shock and those around us, one of the players came trotting over to my father. Frank greeted the player who turned out to be Mickey Scott, the batting practice pitcher and former major leaguer. My father knew Mickey from high school and playing sports back in the day.

They chatted, exchanged pleasantries, and my father then asked if he could get his boy a ball. Mickey replied, “no problem” and started to run out to fetch me a ball.

About halfway out, to my chagrin, Frank started screaming, “Mickeyyyy…Mickeyyyyy”  again! This uniformed Yankee turned with a puzzled look on his face and returned.

“Hey Mick could you get a ball off the bat of Reggie Jackson? That is my boy’s favorite player.”  

Mickey smiled and said, “sure no problem.”

At which point Frank winked at me and settled into his seat.  A few minutes later Mickey was chatting with the only man to have a candy bar named after him. He soon returned not only with a ball that had just been launched off of my favorite and one of the most famous Yankees, Reggie Jackson, he brought Reggie with him to shake my hand!

I was in awe of my father that day. I still treasure that memory and the ball. In fact, I still have that ball displayed in my office with other prized artifacts from my life.

That was a special day, one I will never forget. Probably because it was a first in my life and because there was so much emotion tied to the experience. We tend to remember experiences that are different, that are new and fresh. Our brains will also remember more vividly when emotions are tied to event. This is a lesson I have tried to utilize when teaching students or providing professional development to staff.

That Yankee game was so special to me that I wanted to recreate it some years later for Father’s Day. My father and I were in a rough patch in our relationship. A lot of anger, a lot of fault, some his and some mine. It really doesn’t matter where the fault lies with family.  We only have one life to live and that life can be over in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Our relationship was damaged and it bothered me. He was no longer a hero in my eyes, only a flawed human. Years have a tendency to expose warts, to deepen grievances. I wanted to take a step towards making things right. I decided that Father’s Day would be that step. I got tickets for the Yankee game held on Father’s Day, second row third base side of the stadium because that is where we sat so many years ago. It cost me a pretty penny, but I had saved up and it was going to be worth it!.

I wanted that day to be as much like that day when I was eight-years-old as possible; I wanted to recreate that magic. I told my father about the tickets and asked and asked and asked again if he would really go to the game with me. Frank doesn’t have the greatest track record for showing up when he is supposed to. He assured me he would and that it would be a great day. I was still a bit worried because Frank doesn’t do what Frank doesn’t want to do, but he genuinely seemed enthusiastic. I was optimistic it would be a memorable day, only this time it would be me playing the hero role for my dad. Maybe we could even get a ball.

When game day arrived  I was nervous; I wanted the day to be perfect. I wanted to reconnect with my dad, wanted to let go some of my anger, and turn the page on some of my grievances.

Our established pick up time came and went. As the clock ticked closer and closer to game time, I started to get angry. But, my anger turned to disappointment when calls to his cell and home phone went unanswered.  

I am not sure why I was surprised as this was not the first time I had been disappointed by a Frank no show and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. He still has the unexplainable ability to trick me, maybe because I want to believe in him, want him to come through, always want him to be that hero he was for me in the early 80’s. Just when I was resigned to not attending the game my doorbell rang. My heart leaped and for a brief second thought this time it would be different.

But when I opened the door, it wasn’t Frank. It was one of his blacktop workers. He had sent Keith to go with me.

You may think the next time we got together he would have apologized, but he didn’t; he justified his absence with some lame excuse about a backed up septic or broken down car.  He was incredulous that I was angry since he had sent “Little Mac” to go to the game with me.

I finally decided the fight wasn’t worth it and went into “robot mode” with him, a flat expression where I refuse to get upset or engage in his antics. You may think this would lead to the apology I desired. It just escalated his rage. When I calmly told him to leave my house because I wasn’t going to fight with him, he became a maniac, spewing venomous darts from his mouth. When he still didn’t get a reaction from me, he stomped out my door declaring that I was a hotshot administrator that was too good to fight with his father.  

I didn’t talk to Frank for a few weeks after that. I was just too angry, too upset, and too tired to argue. There are times we don’t have it in us, no desire to hurt or to be hurt.  He left me several messages over that period of time defending himself, defending his choice, but never an apology. If he would just have apologized, said he made a mistake, maybe I would hold less anger, be a less angry person today.

I think, in part, this is why I find it so important to apologize for mistakes, and why it is so important to me that others do as well. To me, an apology is the epitome of a growth mindset. It says, “I have reflected, I have thought about your feelings with an empathetic mind, and I want to do better next time.”

The political climate in our country seems to be embracing a “lie until the end” mentality that reminds me of the popular Shaggy song from the early 2000s, It wasn’t me. I was reminded of this in the recent Supreme Court  nomination process. No matter what side of the political aisle you stand, if you were not disturbed by both sides, you just weren’t paying attention. Whether you think Brett Cavanaugh will make a great Supreme Court Justice or not, whether you agree with his politics or not, whether you believe Dr. Clark or not, it is awfully disturbing to see Brett Cavanaugh lie about his past, about at the type of person he was.

I think so many people would’ve felt better about him, the process, and the Supreme Court had he said, “I was a different person then, I’ve grown, I’ve made better decisions. I don’t really know what happened on that night 36 years ago, but I know that I am no longer the same person I was in high school.”

His mischaracterization of who he was, was so blatant that even his most loyal friends who knew him then withdrew their support (The Daily Podcast by The New York Times.)  Had he just been honest up front, I think many Americans would have felt better about the decision, even if they disagree with his politics.

Some do not agree with our President’s politics, his demeanor, his lack of clinical experience.  Others love his bluntness, his lack of fear, the unapologetic way he demands that his voice be heard. Red or Blue, it doesn’t matter, love him or hate him, no one should condone it when he models the ‘Never wrong” behavior, times when he is unwilling to apologize, or to learn from others.  

This approach is a poor example for our country and our country’s greatest resource, our children. I wish I would hear our President  say “Yes I made a mistake, I did some things wrong, I have learned from that mistake.”

How about, “yeah I’m new at this, but I’m learning as I go and you know what? There’s a lot of politicians that have plenty of experience, that have done a lot worse than me. I’m trying to do the best I can. I’m trying to get better as I go.”

That is why I feel it is even more important today for educators to understand the value of a mistake, and to teach that it is OK to say I’m sorry, that it’s Ok to own up to a mistake. After reading Gary Armida‘s piece 21 Years Of “Management” Lessons and Imperfection, I was reminded of this fact. I am proud to be associated with a teacher who reflects on his lessons, reflects on his relationships, and when he makes mistakes, owns up to it.

This approach has been further validated as I read the latest from Brene Brown, Dare to Lead.   Dr. Brown continues to prove that is not only ok to have flaws, but embracing those flaws, calling them out, and learning from them makes us better as leaders. She presents her case in language that feels real, feels like you are talking to a trusted friend. She backs up her claims with a plethora of data that makes it hard to to object .

I have made a lot of mistakes over the years. Only when I have had the courage to apologize and admit those mistakes to not only others, but to myself have I truly grown as a educator and a person. It is those times that I am proud of who I am becoming–a flawed person who is trying to do better.

Recently, at a school event, I waved to a member of the wait staff and received a cool response in return. This waiter was a former student. Usually when I see former students they smile, we interact, we have a chat. Sometimes they try to give me special treatment, bring my meal first or an extra Diet Coke.

But this student barely made eye contact. I was upset, but not surprised. I would like to think the positive interactions with former students are earned, based on a mutual respect that was built during a time when they were students of mine. In this case I didn’t deserve even one Diet Coke or a smile; I deserved what I got.  

I remember Kevin as a seventh grader. I remember how angry he was, how much havoc caused in the school. I also remember the day that I got in his face and yelled probably louder I’ve ever yelled in my life, using my deepest coaching voice.

I was in need of a haircut that day. I was in need of a lot of things.  I lost it. I screamed; I got close to him, I went on and on and on, wild hair flapping, true rage in my eyes. I was so angry with him that even the not so kid-center security guard looked at me with disappointment and fear, making me realize I went too far. He was suspended and not too long after that moved to a different District.  I hadn’t seen him since, but thought of him often and thought of my terrible reaction to his violation of the sacred “Code of Conduct”.

Obviously, he had not forgotten the outburst either. When we had a private moment I pulled him aside and I told him that I remember that day and I wanted to apologize for how I acted and how I treated him as a seventh grader.

I apologized for not taking the time to figure out everything that was going on in his life at the time. I apologized for being exactly the opposite type of principal he needed. I also told him I was so glad to see he was doing well.

With a small tear in his eye, he shook his head and said thank you.  I finally got a smile and a Diet Coke, but I’m sure our relationship wasn’t totally repaired, the damage not undone, but I’m hoping I took a step towards correcting the mistake I made that day.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard for adults to apologize, to admit we’ve made a mistake, to ask for input from students, from other adults, from bosses and subordinates, but I know that if we did, our schools would be better off, our kids would be better off, and our society would be better off.

Make a mistake, own up to it. Think you can do better, own up to it. Ask questions. Seek feedback.

We are in the business of school for kids; they are our customer, they are our motivation, they are our hope. Yet we rarely ask them how we can serve them best.  We rarely ask them how we can do better.

Why not? Is it fear? Is it stubbornness? Do we think we know better?

I’m not sure why we don’t ask students to critique us as teachers, as principals. I’m not sure why we don’t give them the opportunity to give us honest feedback without us taking offense. It’s hard to hear criticism, even if it is true, even if it asked for, even if we know in our hearts it can help make us better.

The logical part of our minds knows that honest feedback can help us grow as educators and as people, yet most of us are guilty of not asking for feedback enough, or getting offended when it stings a bit.

Teachers: don’t be afraid to ask your students what they thought of a lesson. Don’t be afraid to apologize after you missed the mark. Ask your students how you can do better,  apologize when you have a bad day. When we admit we are human to our students, it models the type of growth mindset we often encourage, but less often practice.

Administrators: it’s OK to apologize to your teachers when you’re less understanding, less caring, less thoughtful than you should’ve been. It’s OK to apologize to your teachers when you forget to send an email, forget to send a notification, when one of your rollouts falls short, when one of your initiatives is a bust.

Tell your teachers you’re sorry. Ask your teachers how you could do better next time. Show your teachers that you’re human because when we model this behavior for teachers and teachers model it for students, kids will start to live their lives that way, knowing that it’s OK to make a mistake. It’s OK to be a jerk sometimes, but it’s not OK to bury it, to say it wasn’t me. Then our students will have a better understanding of what a Growth Mindset means in the real world.

We all make mistakes on a day-to-day basis in our jobs and our lives as parents, as friends, as spouses. How we learn from those mistakes, how we react to those mistakes is what truly separates the good guys from the bad guys.

I wish I could see all the students I have made mistakes with over the past 25 years. I would love to say I’m sorry for all those times I used sarcasm, the times I yelled, the times I was cranky. I want apologize to the students that I didn’t take the time to listen to, the times I used my stick instead of my heart. I want to apologize for all the times I took it personally when an outburst made me feel less than, so I reacted in turn by making them feel the same.

The funny thing is that when I look back on the mistakes I have made, the mess ups that bother me the most are the ones that had to do with people and relationships much more than ones that had to do with pedagogy. Once again validating the truest of all cliches, it’s all about relationships.

This weekend I spent some time with my father watching football and shooting the shit.  We reminisced, talked about the good times, and avoided the bad. He asked if I remembered all the games we watched and went to when I was a kid.

The first thing that popped into my mind was the game that wasn’t. I wanted to call him on it. I wanted to get one more pound of flesh. I wanted to tell him he hurt me, but I just smiled and nodded.

I really wanted an apology. I wish he would’ve told me he was sorry for that and another indiscretions, other missed opportunities. It would help me with my anger, it would help me forgive and it would be so damn therapeutic.

I contemplated our complex relationship on my car ride home as I held onto my anger; why couldn’t he just have apologize today?  

After a while I realized I can’t control my father, I can’t control anyone all. All I can really control is myself. Then it hit me; it’s easy for me to demand my apology from him, but maybe it was time for me to apologize. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve said things I’m not proud of. I’ve done things I’m not proud of, damaged our relationship at times as much as he.

I hope someday I have the courage to apologize for my mistakes and Frank his because then maybe we can both let go of our anger and pain.  

I know it will help me, and I know it will help my father, yet I still can’t bring myself to take that step. It is still just too real, too raw.  It is easier to shut down, to put up my shield. I hope tomorrow, or the next day or the day after that I will be more courageous, be a better person, be above it. That is what I will strive for, but, if I am being honest, not sure I will be able to accomplish it.

I hope all educators can reflect on mistakes they made yesterday,  today, and will make tomorrow. I hope they will take every opportunity to own up to them, to apologize for them, to learn for them. I hope they are stronger than I am. One thing I know for sure is that no one is perfect, but we can always do better next time.