I am interning at a school as part of my major at Bowling Green, and I spent a lot of time with a teen as she studied Algebra II. In just the one day I got to know her, I could tell she was incredibly bright. She had that kind of intrinsic brilliance that doesn’t come from studying, it’s just there. She’s curious and ambitious, and academics, for the most part, seemed to come naturally to her.* But sometimes, this kind of careless intelligence comes at an emotional cost.
When excellence becomes an expectation, and not a goal, the disappointment that comes with failure is amplified to an extreme, to a point where even the tiniest failures, failures that aren’t even failures at all, feel dramatically more heavy.
When you’re unaccustomed to asking questions, getting help, and actually working hard to get where you need to be, you begin to feel stupid when you aren’t understanding things right away. This is an incredibly toxic mentality in teens that we as teachers need to strive to combat. Encourage asking questions. Give students time to answer your questions. Emphasize the importance of working hard and doing your best work over finishing as fast as possible. Remind your students that struggling and asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of curiosity and growth.
This applies to students of all genders. But there is something particular about the way we perceive girls that makes it so difficult to bear.
A girl’s automatic response to a perceived failure is to apologize. We’re sorry for making a mistake. We’re sorry for needing help. We’re sorry for wasting your time. We’re sorry we say sorry too much.
And though we’ll apologize profusely for it, this isn’t our fault. It’s a product of a society that tells us that it is our fault. That girls are meant to be seen and not heard. Even as society becomes increasingly more progressive, there is a pervasive sentiment of inferiority in girls that needs to be actively addressed, or else it festers and grows inside of us.
Girls are led to believe that if we ask too many questions, we’re annoying. If we answer too many questions in class, we’re showing off. If we take a leadership role, we’re bossy. If we elect to follow instead, we’re submissive. Society tells us to always do the correct thing at the correct time, but that there isn’t a correct thing at all. There is no right way to be a girl. Still, we’ll apologize for getting it wrong.
So how do we actively combat this? It’s hard. Because when we’re taught for so long to be sorry, telling us that we’re wrong for saying sorry just makes us more sorry. Addressing this issue requires a gentle approach, one that isn’t demanding or accusatory.
Rather than telling young girls that they shouldn’t be sorry, tell them they don’t have to be sorry. It seems like a tiny semantic issue, but it makes a difference. We must be allowed to feel our feelings. But we should also be assured that we have nothing to be sorry for.
The approach to this is different depending on the age of your students, so I’ll break it down in terms of what I wish I’d been told when I was younger.
K-3: This is where the foundations of insecurity often are planted. Here, instead of reversing this phenomenon, you can nip it in the bud. When they’re young, you don’t have to tell girls that their gender won’t limit them, because they probably never considered that it would. At this age, you can address all genders in the same way (as long as you’re cognizant of the societal restrictions that exist). Encourage everyone to ask questions, to be curious, to try hard. Let everyone know that if they work hard they can succeed and they don’t have to be sorry for taking up space.
4-5: This is where young girls (especially girls in marginalized minorities) may become more aware of the societal limitations that face them. Be conscious of this Sorry Phenomenon. Remind insecure students that their insights are valuable and their curiosity is admirable. If and when they apologize for taking up space, remind them that they don’t have to be sorry. It may get tedious and frustrating to constantly repeat yourself, but it’s so important.
6-8: Middle school is a breeding ground for insecurity. This is where Sorry Phenomenon thrives. Similarly to in upper elementary school, you must encourage asking questions and taking up space, but here is where it becomes a little more specific towards girls. In elementary school the foundations of this insecurity are built, and in middle school they are fortified. As students become more aware of themselves-- be it gender, sexuality, race, religion, disability, or anything that might limit someone’s success in the current oppressive social climate-- they become more aware of these incapacitating limitations. This is the time to directly address the stigmas and social constructs that could hold them back, and teach all students that they can overcome them.
9+: At this point, your students are likely to be much more politically active and socially aware. At least to a certain extent, they have an understanding about historical civil rights struggles and are no strangers to the concept of marginalization, at least in theory. They have the capacity to understand these issues on a complex level. Here, I’d advise you to be direct about this Sorry Phenomenon. Have an inclusive discussion about it. Let them know that you understand that they may have been made to feel insecure or afraid to speak up, but that your classroom is an environment where everyone has the right to take up space. Don’t make a classroom rule that you can’t apologize for asking questions. Don’t invalidate their feelings. Let them know that there is always room for them in your class. They do not come second.
For all ages, genders, sexualities, abilities, races, and religions-- let your students know that they do not have to be sorry for being active participants in their education.
*Keep in mind, these are inferences. But we are using her symbolically, so whether or not it exactly applies to this one girl in this one school is irrelevant. This is a phenomenon in girls that I’ve observed and experienced in many cases.