By Katie Miller
I am a lover of words. For the last twenty years I have been surrounded by words in my career as an English Learner teacher and an Instructional Coach for a Spanish Immersion program. I love creating a vocabulary lesson where students get to explore, dig, discover, and use new words. The linguistic side of language makes me quiver with excitement when a student uses a new word in their oral or written language. I even call myself a “walking thesaurus” as I love to have students learn synonyms and antonyms to expand their daily vocabulary and giggle when they begin to imitate my words.
My students have taught me an important lesson over the years that is a step beyond my vocabulary lessons. They taught me that words can be powerful. Words have power not only in the academic world, like my vocabulary lessons, but in the social and emotional world as well. Each word that is spoken has meaning. Even the most simple words, like “hello,” have meaning to both the speaker and the listener. The speaker has a meaning, but the listener may interpret it differently. Our words are powerful to our students, families, and colleagues.
How can we as educators change the way we use our words to make them positive and affirming to all?
Here is an example of where words matter.
As I was walking down the hall to visit a classroom, I noticed a student slithering like a snake down the hallway. I knew this student was not where he needed to be and that his teacher was looking for him.
This student was validated that he was creative and had great imaginative skills, but was redirected to follow the hallway expectations. If I would have said the first statement, he may have felt as though he had no other option and just had to “follow the rules.” Plus, it was a much more fun way to go back to his classroom for him and me!
This is one example of how words can be powerful with adults too (not just our students).
Walking down the hall, or in the staff lounge, one might overhear a conversation about a student. It may sound something like this:
“Ugh, Johnny is driving me crazy today! He just won’t stop tapping his pencil during math! I told him to knock it off and he wouldn’t!
Think about how someone overhearing this conversation now perceives Johnny? How do you think Johnny felt when he was told to “knock it off”? Did that phrase frustrate him more and make it more difficult to redirect him?
What if you heard the teacher say this instead?
“Johnny likes to tap his pencil on his desk. I noticed it was bothering other students. So, I went up to him and said, ‘I bet you are going to be a fantastic drummer someday. Let’s practice drumming with your pencil at recess and I’ll give you a fidget toy to use until then’. He loved using the fidget and we finished the lesson without any more disruptions.”
This teacher validated the student’s need to fidget, along with their love of a good beat, while providing the opportunity for the teacher and class to keep focused on the lesson. Also, think about the teacher who is overhearing the second conversation. Not only did they hear that Johnny could be a great musician someday, but also how affirming and positive that other teacher was with their student.
The article “15 Ways to Bring More Positive Language into Your Classroom and School” from We Are Teachers provides a great infographic with examples of how to tweak phrases to be both affirming and positive.
Words can have power with families as well. I have had many nights where I check my email at home to see an email from a parent who is upset about what happened to their child at school. I have had sleepless nights about some of these emails as to how I was going to handle the discussion with the parent the next day. Then I discovered one of my favorite phrases, pulled from the author Todd Whitaker in his book What Great Principals Do Differently: Twenty Things That Matter Most: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” From the start, this validates the feelings of the parent, student, or colleague, and opens up the lines of communication immediately. No matter what, someone feels something about the situation. It doesn’t put blame on anyone, but rather affirms to the person that you care and are willing to listen.
I ask that you be cognizant of your words tomorrow, next week, and beyond. Treat them with the power they hold and use that power wisely.
The old phrase “think before you speak” is as true today as it was 20 years ago when I started my career in education. I hope you fall in love with positive and powerful words, too!
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.