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.
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.