Power in our Words

Summer has come, and this is the time I normally take to reflect on my past year’s teaching experience.  I have filled two roles for the past two and a half years: first, as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator and then as a Learning Support Coordinator. I didn’t realize how much doing both roles would require of me. I love the creativity of curricular development and also enjoy working one-on-one with struggling students.  I like the challenge of finding the right strategies to support each learner.  Next school year, I will be solely engaged in learning support, and I have found myself feeling ebullient at the prospect. Though I will miss providing reading and writing curricular support, the whole reason I went into teaching forty-three years ago was to help kids who found school difficult.  I love working with kids to find pathways to learning, to make reading and writing playful, to make school meaningful and fun again.

As I shift my attention solely to learning support, I keep thinking about how teacher language supports student engagement and growth.  There have been many studies about this idea. Also, I know this to be true from my own experiences as a student.  There were teachers who shut me down and who believed more in my limitations than in my possibilities.  They could be dismissive, sarcastic, and sometimes downright mean.  I vowed never to be like those teachers.  When I was unfortunate enough to have that type of teacher, I learned to keep my head down, be quiet, and not to bring any attention to myself.  In those years, I did not learn as much as I could have, and my self-esteem suffered.  I am grateful that I only had two such years in my long career as a student.  Most years, I had teachers who saw my potential, who encouraged me, and who showed they cared about my ideas.  In the presence of those teachers, I flourished.  I felt good about myself.  I took more and more risks, my voice became stronger, and I had the motivation to learn.  Their support fed my curiosity and creativity.  I began to read widely and teach myself.  I was empowered by my teachers’ positive attitude towards me.

The past two and a half years has been difficult for teachers.  They have spent less time teaching and more time on administrative minutia.  The stress of masks, social distancing, hybrid learning, and virtual technology has taken its toll.  Workshops on mindfulness and self-care can only do so much.  Since my job is to support learning, I spend most of my days inside classrooms observing teaching and learning.  I have witnessed some wonderful, creative, and engaging lessons.  However, I have also witnessed some disengagement, frustration, and negative, unproductive talk from teachers.  As I reflect on how I can become a positive voice in my school community,  I have been reading Paula Denton’s book, The Power of Our Words.  The book is part of the Responsive Classroom series and gives concrete advice to teachers on how to reflect on how they speak to their students and how to shift negative talk into talk that is uplifting and supportive – talk that will make students feel valued and talk that will encourage them to become involved in their own learning.  I plan to think of ways to speak to my faculty about the importance of teacher talk and to make teacher talk integral to the learning profiles I create for each struggling student.

I hope in this way, not only our students with learning differences, but also all students will benefit.  Paul Denton’s words ring true: “…teachers can use language to help students imagine themselves behaving and achieving in ways that go beyond but connect to their current reality.  Helping students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is a fundamental job of teachers, and language is a key tool for doing this.”

Now, more than ever it is important for teachers to become mindful of their talk and to think about the words we use to provide optimal engagement and lead children to see learning as a way to attain their goals.  Teachers have that power, and it is important for them to think deeply before they speak.

Books that Promote Positive Talk:

How to Talk So Kids Can Learn: At Home and In School by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King

How to Talk so Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Positive Teacher Talk for Better Classroom Management by Deborah Diffly

Say What You See for Parents and Teachers by Sandra R. BlackardThe Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton