Our Words Matter

Our students have experienced unprecedented changes in their daily routines and communities. The focused attention on racial injustice after George Floyd’s murder and calls for societal and governmental change at all levels have brought uncertainty and in many cases turmoil into the lives of our students and their families. When we return to school, we want every student to feel welcomed, seen, accepted, and supported. Summer break gives us time for reflection–to consider our unconscious biases and how they shape our words.

Teacher Language that Supports All Students

Positive teacher language is more than just using the right words to encourage belonging and significance. It involves careful listening and the skillful use of nonverbal communication. It is our tone and intention. It is how we speak to students and families, and how we talk about our students with colleagues.

What We Say and How We Say It

Our words hold more power than we may realize. Language permeates nearly every interaction between teachers and students, and it shapes how students think about themselves and school, how they act, and how they learn. Students pick up on subtle messages in what we say and do not say to them. And how we talk about our students with colleagues is just as important.

  • Any family structure is a “good family” 

“This student is from a good family.” The words “good family” are commonly understood (a code) to indicate a white, middle-class family with two parents, one male and one female, living together in a single-family home. When educators imply this definition, they devalue any other family structure that does not fit that preconceived image. If our intention is to make everyone feel welcome in our school community, then we must frame every family as a good family, regardless of structure, socio-economics, race, or gender.

  • Respect and value natural features and characteristics

Engaging in conversations about a student’s appearance is unnecessary. For example, when we negatively comment on a student’s hair (“Her hair was so big today. The kids behind her couldn’t see the whiteboard!”) or complain that students are too loud when speaking a language other than English, we unintentionally criticize something that is a natural part of who they are. Additionally, attempting to take a positive approach when commenting on appearance, such as “Her skin is so beautiful” or “She’s pretty even though she’s dark,” can make a student feel singled out, or seen as different or something out of the ordinary. Even with the best intentions, talking about natural features and characteristics can diminish a student’s sense of significance and belonging.

Listen to Students

Listening is more than passively receiving someone’s words. It’s searching for the speaker’s intended meaning, which often requires paying attention to what’s being said beneath the words. Listening lets us know our students. One of the guiding principles of the Responsive Classroom approach states that what we know and believe about our students—individually, culturally, developmentally—informs our expec­tations, reactions, and attitudes about those students. Careful listening can help us understand what our students’ lives are like outside of school. When we know our students fully, we can make better decisions about lessons, classroom management, and discipline that will best support them and address their needs.

Use Envisioning Language

When we make statements and ask questions that help all students create positive mental images of themselves, we help everyone see themselves achieving and behaving in ways that connect to and go beyond what they already know and can do. Helping all students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is one of our fundamental responsibilities as educators, and language is a key tool for doing this. For example, “Mathematical thinkers are always looking for ways to solve problems with fewer steps. What’s one way this kind of thinking could help you in this math challenge? What about in an activity you do outside of school?” Statements and questions like these help all students see themselves and those around them as capable of success and high achievement.

 

Every child should experience dignity, hope, autonomy, and competence in school. Intentionally using positive language in our teaching and interactions with students and colleagues enables us to promote growth, self-esteem, and a stronger sense of belonging and significance for everyone.

 

 

Written by Kristen Vincent, Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher, in collaboration with Michelle Benson, Responsive Classroom Professional Development Designer and Deanna Ross, Responsive Classroom Educational Consultant and Coach
Tags: Empathy

10 Replies to “Our Words Matter”

  • I agree with this article mostly. I struggle with being given “time” to get to know my students. I would love to 30 minutes each day to individually interact with each student just to check in see how things are going, did they win their game, how was the recital? Those types of things so student can feel heard and appreciated.

    One thing that I didn’t agree with is when you say you come from a good family that means you are white. I don’t think that at all and teaching at an inner city school that doesn’t make sense. A good family is one where race has nothing to do with it and having parents that love and support you, are concerned about you as a student and individual, and meet your needs makes a good family.

  • Julie, I do not think you read the article as a whole. The article says that the concept of a good family is white is a general belief. BUT the article goes on to say that this is wrong – we have to move beyond pre-conceived ideas. A good family is NOT defined by race, gender or socio economic factors – this is the point the author was making.

  • As a child I believed that a good family was, “a white, middle-class family with two parents, one male and one female, living together in a single-family home” (quoting the article). Coming from an African American single parent family, my images of family came from the media (i.e., Brady Bunch, Little house on the prairie). I attended Catholic school for twelve years, often the only African American in the class, sometimes treated unfair. Due to the lack of African American representation, I felt less than other children, like second best, almost ashamed. As a teacher of small children, I am obligated to protect children from this experience. How I talk to them and behave around them should scream, “you are valued.”

  • Good Family ?
    As a child I believed that a good family was, “a white, middle-class family with two parents, one male and one female, living together in a single-family home” (quoting the article). Coming from an African American single parent family, my images of family came from the media (i.e., Brady Bunch, Little house on the prairie). I attended Catholic school for twelve years, often the only African American in the class, sometimes treated unfair. Due to the lack of African American representation, I felt less than other children, like second best, almost ashamed. As a teacher of small children, I am obligated to protect children from this experience. How I talk to them and behave around them should scream, “you are valued.”

  • Hello, my name is Katlyn Ash and through my reading of the following article, I am yet again reminded of the importance and affect of utilizing positive language in every interaction we experience. In my personal profession of being a Teacher of the Deaf, language is the most crucial component in my classroom and my students’ lives, whether it be speaking, signing, our body language or facial expressions – it is a necessity. Through this article, it is easy to see the various insights into what we say and how we say it affects those around us when communicating. Using positive language in our teaching and interactions with students and colleagues enables us to promote growth, self-esteem, and a stronger sense of belonging and significance for everyone. Thereby helping us create a safe and positive climate for those involved. One can have positive intent but portray the wrong message due to the language used – or in my case, the tone, facial expressions, and pace of said language. I believe that this type of awareness of the importance of positive language and active listening is vital to our chaotic and everchanging world. What we know and believe about our students, affects our expec¬tations, reactions, and attitudes surrounding those students. While communication is key to positive and successful relationships, it is important to look at all aspects such as active listening, being culturally responsive, being aware of who is around and could be listening. The language we use says a lot of who we are as people, professionals, and leaders. Every child should experience dignity, hope, and competence in school. As stated in the article, one way to give them this is to use positive teacher language. Moving forward, I am going to be more mindful of those around me, being more conscientious of the language and how I use it with my students, while sharpening my active listening skills.

  • I think it is important for children to understand that family is good and it is not something that is gauged on bias whether it is implicit or otherwise. Once we truly take a stand in ensuring that equity is a right of all families, we can start to create an equitable community that everyone deserves. Early childhood is a wonderful place to reach both families and children to help make these important global changes that are needed.

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