Apology and Accountability

Responding to Emotionally Charged Moments in the Classroom

While faculty are not trained to respond to psychological and emotional distress, the classroom can be a space that brings up charged responses, especially when discussing topics that relate to lived experiences of violence, injustice, and oppression. While faculty should direct students who experience distress to access support from trained professionals—such as through campus wellness centres, psychological services, peer support services, sexual violence support services, and culturally relevant support services—faculty can also play a pivotal role in how emotions are navigated in the classroom. In our research on trigger warnings in higher education, my co-investigators and I found that requests for trigger warnings often had more to do with desires to have emotions taken seriously in the classroom rather than an expectation that uncomfortable or difficult topics should be avoided (Dyer et al. 2024). Given that emotions do arise in the classroom, sometimes in unexpected ways, developing strategies for addressing the emotional dynamics that can emerge in the classroom can help equip both faculty and students with better tools for navigating and responding to difficult emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and shame when they arise.

Although few people in universities are trained to respond to emotionally charged situations, classrooms can benefit from both students and teachers developing and learning foundational skills in communication and conflict resolution through de-escalation, accountability, and apology. For instance, many difficult encounters in the classroom can be resolved quickly by accepting responsibility for our actions and apologizing in meaningful rather than superficial ways; conversely, a small encounter can spiral into a major conflict when emotions are met with defensiveness, aggression, or denial/avoidance. Learning how to be accountable, how to apologize, and how to facilitate this process can go a long way in fostering an engaged learning environment that allows students and faculty alike to work through conflicts and difficult emotions that emerge.

Things to Consider:

  • The most vocal person in the room may not be the one who has been harmed.
  • You might never know who was harmed in the classroom, they may never share their experience with you.
  • You may learn about harm in the classroom from third parties, other students, colleagues, your department chair, or an administrator; this may happen long after the class has ended.
  • Not all emotionally charged moments are harmful; it is important to distinguish between a difficult emotion or discomfort and a situation in which harm has been done.
  • You can approach both discomfort and harmful experiences in a similar way, but the consequences should be different.
  • Discomfort requires reassurance, space, time, and support to work through the emotions.
  • Harm requires responsibility, accountability, justice, and transformation of the behaviour.

Strategies for De-escalation and Acknowledgement

  1. Ensure you are feeling emotionally stable enough to facilitate a difficult class encounter. If you aren’t, you can always pause the class and commit to revisiting the discussion at another determined time. However, it is important that difficult encounters in the classroom are not avoided indefinitely. This can compound and escalate harm and discomfort.
  2. Sometimes it is okay for difficult emotions to come up during class. Acknowledge this. Sharing that this is normal and okay can help students grapple with difficult feelings. If you feel comfortable, you can share your own experience of grappling with difficult feelings and how you came out of it.
  3. Encourage empathy: encourage students to talk with trusted friends and loved ones, and encourage them to do something kind for themselves after a difficult emotional encounter.
  4. Interrupt a situation where escalating emotions risk disrupting learning; offer a time-out and space and time outside of class to continue the discussion, follow up, etc.
  5. Depersonalize the conflict by connecting the individual circumstances to wider systems and structures; help to illustrate how the current situation is part of larger systems and can be challenging to address within the limited space of the classroom.
  6. Turning to course learning, material, texts, and concepts can help anchor the interpretation and analysis of difficult emotional experiences beyond personal feelings.
  7. Validate the emotions and feelings of all parties without staying neutral on the analysis/interpretation of those experiences. The reactions people are having are their own, and it is okay to feel difficult emotions; however, validating emotional experiences is not a validation of an interpretation or understanding of that experience.
  8. Remind everyone that while it’s okay to react emotionally, we have a responsibility to translate our reactions in the classroom in a way that fosters communication and collective learning. Sometimes we learn things that challenge our emotional experiences and reactions.
  9. Affirm that it’s okay for emotions to become overwhelming and normalize taking space, both individually and as a class. Encourage students to take space and time to find grounding and self-regulate or gain equilibrium when difficult emotions emerge in ways that might disrupt participation in class.

Acknowledging harm

Invalidating the feelings and emotions of people who are feeling distressed will likely escalate a situation, even if emotions are not aligned with the circumstances. If you do not agree with the perspective(s) being shared, consider validating feelings rather than thoughts/ideas. You can return to engaging with thoughts/ideas once they have regained emotional equilibrium and can approach a conversation more openly.

If you are the one responsible for causing harm:

Accept Responsibility
Commit to Reflection
Follow Up
Invite Feedback on Improving Your Accountability
Be honest about what you cannot change
Accept that those you harmed may not forgive you

If someone else is responsible for harm:

Ask them to be accountable
Invite Reflection
Share resources or support them in taking accountability
Help identify harm and/or triggers

If you are the one responsible for harm:

Accept Responsibility

Explicitly accept responsibility for causing harm.

e.g., ‘I acknowledge that when I …’ ‘I caused harm in this way…’

Commit to Reflection

Commit to reflecting on it. You don’t have to have an answer or a solution right away.

e.g., ‘I am going to take the next few days to reflect on what just happened and will follow up with you by the next class.’

Follow Up

Follow up on how you’ll take accountability and what changes you will make.

e.g., ‘After the last class, I realize I should have done…’ instead of… ‘Moving forward, I’m going to do…’ when similar situations arise.

Invite Feedback on Improving Your Accountability

Invite those who have been harmed to share what kind of accountability they would like to see and take steps to enact those things to the best of your ability.

e.g., ‘I recognize that I may not have a full picture to understand how to do better. If you feel comfortable doing so, I welcome you to share with me what kind of accountability and steps you would like to see me take.’

Be honest about what you cannot change

Be honest about what you don’t have the capacity to change.

e.g., ‘I understand that my actions have caused harm, and while I want to do better, I am struggling to meet these responsibilities; this is what I can commit to working on now, and this is what I commit to working on once my capacity to do so is available.’

Accept that those you harmed may not forgive you

Accept that those who have been harmed may not forgive you or accept your response.

e.g., ‘I understand that you are not forgiving me. I accept that we will not be able to continue working together. These are the ways I can facilitate a process where you are not required to work with me.

If someone else is responsible for harm:

Ask them to be accountable

e.g., ‘Can you acknowledge your actions by identifying what happened… and describe the consequence of your actions…?’

Invite Reflection

Invite them to take time and space to reflect on the situation outside of class.

e.g., ‘I know this is difficult. Would it help to take time and space to think about this and return to our discussion next week?’

Share resources or support them in taking accountability

If you have the capacity, you can also offer to share resources or support them in acknowledging harm and taking responsibility.

e.g., ‘If it helps, I have resources I can share with you. I’m available later today or tomorrow to talk.’

Help identify harm and/or triggers

Help identify whether harm has been made or people are responding to prior anxieties, insecurities, and vulnerabilities that are being triggered in the classroom.

This is especially the case in situations where someone is currently in crisis or heightened anxiety, where reactions may escalate quickly in ways that are disproportionate to the scenario.

In these cases, encourage the person to gain emotional equilibrium. Acknowledging that they are dealing with difficult emotions can help someone come back to the situation and be able to communicate.

e.g., ‘Why don’t you take a break’ or ‘let’s breathe together slowly to a count of ten.’
Remember: It is easier for people to be accountable to one another when they are not feeling personally attacked, defensive, or invalidated.

While some students may welcome support, others may want to resolve conflicts independently, with loved ones, or with community members. You can gauge if a student requests space by offering support and options, respecting their decision rather than instructing them on what to do.


How to Apologize

Incorporating skill building in accountability and apology into your curriculum can be one way of developing the collective capacity to tackle difficult encounters in the classroom more easily. There are multiple resources available outlining the process of an effective apology which are easy to read, accessible, and freely available. (See Navigating Difficult Pedagogical Dynamics Resources for a list of some of these available resources.)

  1. Apologizing should involve saying “I’m sorry” and should come from a place of reflection. An apology should also illustrate an understanding of the harm done and explain how the person apologizing will take steps and actions to do differently moving forward, including what actions they commit to in making these changes.
  2. An apology cannot be forced or coerced, and apologizing may be difficult in a cultural context where competition is prioritized over cooperation and vulnerability. In a context where someone refuses to take responsibility, accountability, and/or apologize for causing harm, steps may have to be taken for there to be consequences for harmful behaviour to ensure the safety and well-being of others. For example, removing the person’s access to others to avoid continued harm or seeking help from colleagues or university services to intervene.
A common pitfall in attempting an apology is displacing responsibility on the party that has been harmed, such as: “I’m sorry you felt that way; it wasn’t my intention.” This approach places the blame on the person who was harmed instead of showing responsibility and accountability on the part of the person who is apologizing. Being clear with the language and wording is, therefore, important in apologizing, such as: “I’m sorry that my actions made you feel that way, and while it wasn’t my intention, I recognize how and why what I did harmed you.”

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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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