Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Acknowledge your mistakes and apologize

Even instructors make mistakes. You may be caught by surprise when a hot moment or difficult dialogue arises, and say nothing. You may unintentionally say something to a student that makes them feel marginalized or not supported, and realize the impact of your words later. Or, a student may approach you because the assignment you gave does not properly accommodate their disability. When these situations arise, it is important to openly acknowledge your misstep and apologize. Research has shown that students take their cues from you and are negatively impacted by harms that go unacknowledged (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). Similarly, showing your humanity can help students see that mistakes may arise and there are ways to confront those. Here are some sample statements for different scenarios, which you can adapt for your context and personal voice:

  • If you froze during a difficult dialogue: “Ten minutes ago/yesterday/last week, a statement was made in class that I did not address at the time but want to do so now.”
      • Apologize for the delay and acknowledge that by not responding immediately, you (as the instructor) may have given the impression that you condone the behavior and comments that caused
      • Identify the problematic statement(s) that caused the high emotions and
      • State your commitment to responding to incivilities more quickly and desire to better support the learning and well-being of all students.
  • If you committed a microaggression: “[Student], I want to apologize for the comment I made yesterday/what I said to you yesterday. My intention, although poorly articulated, was to say [this]. I understand, however, that my words conveyed incorrect and harmful assumptions about you. Please know that I intend to be more mindful and reflective about what I say in the future.”
      • Try to speak to the student as soon as possible after you have become aware of the harmful impact of your words. In person is best.
    • If a student makes you aware of an aspect of your course that is not accessible to them: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I apologize for the oversight and am happy to work with you and the Office of Disability Resources to come up with a solution.”


Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy. Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.

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