Words can empower or they can destroy. This has been made evident to me again recently. As I watch my daughter enter the school of hard knocks I can see the power of words on her. She is happy and gregarious; she creates worlds of her own, tells amazing stories with friends, and creates new languages that only she and her girlfriends understand. But one negative word said in the right angry tone can take her down fast.
Words in my Past:
I can think of a few things said to me at an early age that took years to get over. Not so much that I was sad about them, but they caused me to believe things about myself that were untrue. “Don’t overstay your welcome.” This led me to believe that if people were around me long enough…they would obviously not like me. “Don’t get your hopes up.” Yeah, why believe things will go your way? Don’t work hard for anything because, after all, you won’t get that thing you aspire to.
I can think of numerous things I said as a child that really hurt others. When I sit through bullying workshops I cringe. I know there were times in my life I said things that “that girl” probably still remembers.
Crushing Words from a Teacher:
I know I have said things to students that have given them great courage. I have said things that made a difference in their lives. I have made them feel special and important. And I have said things that have crushed their spirits. This kind of self-esteem destruction is usually unintentional. You can never really know who is sitting before you. The kids come to your class with all kinds of emotional baggage.
Some students are well-adjusted and some students are clearly fighting themselves to survive. You say something to be funny and it reminds them of their abusive father or mother. You say something like “I’m going to have to call home about this.” not realizing that a call home will result in physical pain, the kind of physical pain that will need to be reported to CPS. You say to your class that a character in the book is an idiot, not realizing one of your students is called an idiot every day. The child didn’t hear me say “Romeo was such an idiot.” The child heard “Mike, you are an idiot.”
In my first years at teaching High School I experienced what my words could do. A child was having severe emotional distress. She had focused on me as the cause of her pain. The mom was concerned that her child might attempt suicide. The parent and the child could not give me a specific example of any thing I had said or done. I kept saying I was sorry for my words, but could I at least have a specific example. I didn’t want to hurt this girl again, so I needed to know what to change for the future. As the meeting progressed the girl got increasingly emotional, she felt I was badgering her. She wanted it to stop. But the principal explained that charges of abuse by a teacher are serious and you have to be able to clearly articulate what the teacher had done. Then she screamed through her tears “She told Annie to stop using up all the scotch tape. And then this one time she told Sarah to sit down and stop brushing her hair while you were giving instructions.” What?
The child had problems. It was evident I had nothing to do with said problems. I just happened to say things that set her brain off. The times she said I had abused her were all times when I had laughed at a student for doing something silly, and then told them to stop it. She was so afraid of not being perfect, of feeling left out, of being laughed at, that when I disciplined any student she felt threatened.
This wouldn’t be the last time I was accused of something like this. And usually it was for saying something of no consequence. But the child heard what they heard. What they brought to the classroom affected what they heard. What they thought about themselves, what they wanted verified, seemed to come out in my words. “If you continue to call people stupid, no one will ever want to work with you.” It was a simple comment that was said to a boy to make sure his group would start working together in a more respectful manner. But the girl across the room heard me say to her “Everyone thinks you are stupid.” She heard it, it was her reality, and I just confirmed for her that her father was right.
Empowering Words from a Teacher:
There are those times you stop in the hall to have a conversation with a student. It is that conversation you have with kids all the time. This is the kind of conversation where the next day…you might have even forgotten that you had it. Yet the parent emails or calls about this conversation, or even mentions it at conferences. “Thank you so much for meeting with my child. You made him/her feel so special. They couldn’t stop talking about how great it was that you took the time to talk to them about ______.” And I am sitting there thinking…did I talk to that kid? When did this happen? What did I say?
You just never know do you?
All you can do is continue to be a positive influence on the lives of your students. Reprimand when needed. Be firm and fair. Stay calm, speak softly when angry, don’t lose it. Keep your sense of humor, that is what they love about you. And remind them to be careful with their words, “Your audience is listening and they might not take your words the way you intend them.”
My other post on the power of words is here: Words are Important