Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What You Say Can Make a Difference

wordsIn The Power of a Teacher’s Words , from Cruel Shoes by eplybon , she tells about her son asking if it is illegal for a teacher to call their students losers. She also says,

“The words of a teacher have more power than any other unrelated individual in a child’s life.”

When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who terrorized us when we made a mistake. I think that may be why I’m such a perfectionist and at times, harder on myself than anyone else. I’m not sure I will ever get over this but I try to teach my students that an error is not a terror.

When I was in high school, I was very good in math and science. I was so good at memorizing facts and figures and formulas. But I was never encouraged to be creative or to create new things with my skills. I remember a teacher explaining to me that because I was so good in math and science that I would never be very creative and I believed this for many years. It took me this long to realize how wrong this teacher was. Since I retired, I am finding out that I do have a creative side. I love to do digital scrapbooking which involves photography and creating scrapbook pages. I also enjoy knitting now and creating my own things. Making these things make me feel so proud of myself especially when I realize how wrong that teacher was.

When I was in college and finishing my student teaching, I had a professor tell me that he didn’t think that teaching was for me and I should think about switching majors. I was totally crushed. You see, teaching was the only thing I had ever wanted to do in my life and up until that time, I thought I had been doing a great job. I remember going to see my advisor and crying on her shoulder. Luckily for me, she persuaded me to stick with teaching and told me that I would be an awesome teacher. Unbeknownst to me until years later, the first professor had been going through marital discord and he took it out on me. I decided to prove the first professor wrong and trust that my advisor knew what she was talking about. When I was chosen Teacher of the Year almost 30 years later, I knew my advisor had been right. I’m so glad that I trusted her words and let them help guide me.

I taught a self contained class for many years and in most cases I had my students for four years in a row for all the core courses. When I figured out the amount of time I spent with them, I realized that I probably spent more time with my students than any other adult in their life. In fact, I was with them more than their own parents during the school year. Whether they would admit it or not, what I said and did had a major impact on my students.

I saw this when I was teaching lessons and if I told them that it was a hard lesson, they had some difficulty with it. If I said it was easy, they seemed more excited and willing to try it.

They believed what I had to say because they had always been told that a teacher knew “everything!” I had to tell them that this was not true and that many times I would be learning along with them so we needed to help each other. I tried to impress on them that we were together so much that we were like family. Many times we would squabble like family members do, but we also had to be there for each other and take care of each other.

This became really evident in one situation when some of my students were taking an industrial arts class which I thought they would enjoy since it would be some hands-on activities. About two weeks into the class, one of my students asked to speak to me privately. He then told me that he felt two other students in our class were being treated badly in that class. The teacher called them dummies and retards because they were in a special ed class and then had them sweeping the floors during class time. Needless to say, I was furious and had a conference with that teacher and an administrator to correct this problem. It took me months to undo the damage that this teacher did to these students. I’m so grateful to the student who trusted me enough to share this situation with me but I also think if I hadn’t told the class about being family, it could have turned out differently.

It hurts me to hear other teachers belittle students and call them names. I feel when teachers say things like this, even if they think they are joking, they begin to believe it. Not only do they begin to believe it but so do others including other teachers and students.

I guess it makes me think of that old saying, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”

I also hope that when I hear another teacher talking this way, I have the courage to tell them how I feel. Maybe they don’t realize how they come across and the impact their words have on others.

How do you handle situations like this?

Posted on the Successful Teaching Blog by loonyhiker (successfulteaching at gmail dot com).

Original image: 'Embraced by Words'
http://www.flickr.com/photos/21046489@N06/4289385819 by: Robbert van der Steeg


Ashley D. said...

You are right in the fact that it takes courage to confront a colleague about the way they treat students. It can be harder to approach to colleague than ignore it.

I had a student that was in fifth grade and had severe ADD. Her ability to attend to an academic activity in the regular education classroom averaged under two minutes in length. She was an amazing child that was highly creative, positive, a great friend to others, and always smiling.

Her regular education teacher was a very reactive person. Her classroom was on the same hall as mine and I would often hear her lecturing students outside of her classroom. The student’s parents were adamantly against medication and the teacher resented it. She was very frustrated with my student and often brought her into my room because she was not on task. She would tell me that the student was not doing anything, was behind, would not focus, and was not going to pass in front of the student.

I tried to politely talk to the teacher about strategies that she could use and things that would help. It did not make much of a difference. One day she blew up in front of the student and I was angry. I pulled her aside and told her that she could not talk to the child like that. I explained to her that the behavior was a basis of her disability and not her fault. I also told her that they student was a sweet and kind child and that speaking to her like that would kill her spirit. I explained that she would always struggle with attention and that reprimanding her would not change the behavior, but could change her self-esteem. The teacher was angry and defensive. She did not speak to me for several days and then came to me and said thank you for talking to her.

Its easy to get frustrated and not realize how and what we say can be hurtful to students. At the end of the day I always try to remember that students may not always remember everything you taught them or said to them, but they will remember the way you made them feel.

Sam Rangel said...

Great post. I've added it to today's Posts in the Spotlight.

We have so much power in our words as teachers. Sometimes we don't realize it.

Thanks again.


eplybon said...

Everything you said sounded so much like the things I remember driving me or crushing me throughout my own school experience. Thank you for this response to my post. You are right, if we do something about the times we hear another teacher dealing the crushing blows, maybe we can make a difference in students who aren't even ours.