The Power of Our Words

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we, as teachers, talk about students amongst ourselves. Quick conversations in the hall, longer ones in the staff room or in a classroom. In full-fledged meetings with our colleagues. The more I think about it, the stronger my feeling that not only does what we say matter, but how we say it matters even more.

The words we use have power. They can color the perception that we, or others we are talking to, have about the student.

And, in the moment we’re having a conversation, we have a choice. And it’s a choice we need to make every time we have a conversation about a student.

We can refer to a student who just plagiarized an assignment as “slick” and ask for him to have 1:1 supervision during the next assessment.

Or we can say we’re worried that a 6th grader felt the need to cheat and ask what’s going on with him. We can ask our colleagues. And we can ask the student.

We can label a student as lazy.

Or we can ask why she’s choosing to do the minimum work required. Are her skills low? Does the assignment not interest her? Is she afraid of failing or putting herself out there?

We can call a student emotional.

Or we can remember that the student is 12, and the mess of hormones that flow through a 12 year old’s body and all the changes those hormones cause makes it hard to regulate emotions. Then we can look for ways to embed social-emotional learning into our curriculum.

We can call a student a know-it-all.

Or we can talk to colleagues about ways to channel that student’s enthusiasm into something that will give them more positive responses from teachers and peers and help make the student a part of the classroom community.

All of that said, I’m by no means innocent of this. We all get frustrated and we’ve probably all at one point or another labeled a student in a way we wish we hadn’t. We’ve complained about a student’s behaviors and attitudes, rather than looking for the best way to help him or her. As teachers, we need to make an effort to shift our mindsets from deficit-focused to solutions-focused. And for those of us who are actively working on that, we need the courage and the grace to offer other perspectives when our colleagues talk about students in ways that may make if difficult to find a way for that student to be successful.

How do you talk to teachers who may be discussing students in ways that you’re uncomfortable with?

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  1. On "Reportese", Teacher Comments & Saying What We Mean - Samantha Mosher - April 22, 2015

    […] a bit shocked. As both a middle school teacher and as a teacher educator, I am fairly invested in the language we use when we talk about students and in helping others to use that language. That said, I do see how, as […]

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