Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Children Will Listen: Choosing Words Carefully in the Classroom

Do you remember the anti-red pen mania of a few years ago? If you worked in education, you probably do. This movement, arising from who knows where (I suspect the Chair of a Department of Education at a major university), stipulated that teachers should abandon the dreaded red pen for correcting students' work. Too much red pen was debilitating, apparently, leaving students far too despondent to even consider making the suggested corrections. As I recall, we were encouraged, instead, to use green or purple pen, which carried less stigma.

This movement annoyed me to no end, especially since I had just purchased a 12-pack of red pens shortly before it reached my school in Queens. I continued to use red pen, as no one dictated not to, and so far as I know, none of my students were traumatized greatly. When I think back on this little blip in teacherdom, however, I don't really think about the red pens, but about how it shows how hard we try to be good caretakers of our students' feelings and trust. And yet we are often so misguided.

Lately I've been thinking that rather than worrying about the psychological effect our ink color might have, we might instead think about our words. Every aspect of teaching has been thoroughly analyzed and evaluated, from how we structure our lesson plans to the way our room is set up... and then we pay so little attention to the words that come out of our mouths.

The Errors

It seems to me that we adults who work with youth – whether as teachers, parents, administrators or any other role – mean well, but often make mistakes in how we talk with or to them. I'm not casting stones, mind you; I make these errors on an all-too-regular basis myself. What do we do?

  1. We do not listen. Because we are usually the most knowledgeable people about the given subject in the room, we stop listening to the kids' observations and thoughts. I do this, apparently assuming that my vast knowledge of Shakespeare encompasses every single possible thought one could have about Macbeth.  

  2. We make assumptions. It's logical to do so – after 7 years of teaching The Miracle Worker, I should feel some competency with the material. However, since I've never taught a given class that material before, I shouldn't assume how they'll respond to it. You'd think that after having a 9th grade class ask to read more Charlotte Bronte after falling in love with Jane Eyre, I'd know that.

  3. We use teacher-speak. Teacher-speak is saying or writing things like "Your paper could be better organized." Great feedback, unless your student doesn't know what organization means when it comes to writing. Another great example is my habit of writing "Very astute logic" on essays, until a student asked me what "As-tootie" meant. (I did not answer "a dance from the 1960's," by the way). By the way, teacher-speak has a close relation: Report Card Syndrome. The way report cards work at my school, the comments section allows me to plug in any one of about 200 phrases. Even 200 phrases, though, is not enough, and the phrases that are there must be baffling for some students. "Works to completion" comes to mind. "Inconsistent response to grade-level tasks" also.

  4. We are vague, saying things like "good" or "excellent" frequently. There was a movement against this recently, as well, and while I'm by nature against fads, any one of my students will tell you that I say "good" too often.  I believe I said it once to a student who asked to go to the bathroom in the midst of a class discussion.

  5. We don't think before we speak, and once it comes out of our mouths, it's really, really difficult to take it back. As I write this, I am thinking about an incident that recently happened in my school; I'll change the details to protect the innocent. At the top of one of my classes, several students came in, clearly disgruntled. When I asked what was wrong, they explained that in their previous class, the teacher had asked for volunteers to read a short skit, and when one boy volunteered, the teacher said, "No, I'm looking for someone more manly." Horrifying, no? I spoke to the boy in question and tried to reassure him. He said he wasn't that upset, but I was devastated on his behalf. Such a clueless, thoughtless thing to say. And I've seen this happen multiple times. I'm sure another teacher has cleaned up the mess I've made with a graceless comment, for that matter.

That's quite a list, and I'm sure there are more mistakes we make. Here's what I think I'll try to do to combat these.

What Might Work

  1. Listen. Well, we could try listening, and to do so, we need to think about why we don't listen. For me, it's easy to see that I don't listen when I think I know what's going to be said, or when I'm tired, or when I'm self-involved, or when we have a lot of ground to cover in class, without much time. So, clearly, I need to sleep more, be less self-involved, and let my class be more chill, letting go of those pesky standards and learning goals. Right.

    Alternately, I could spend a moment thinking about why I listen to adults (well, most of 'em) more than kids: It's because I value each adult as an individual, and do not think of them as a collective whole. With my classes, this is more difficult. One of my classes has 32 kids in it. Even if I only spent 30 seconds on each one individually, that's 15 minutes of the 45 minute class gone. Still, that's the key: valuing each of my students as an individual, with unique thoughts and responses. I could try that. After all, a  major portion of my work is to help kids grow. If I assume that I know what they're going to say, based on an understanding of who they were in the past, how I am encouraging their growth?

  2. Assume less. Why do any of us assume anything, ever? We all know that assumptions get us into hot water, revealing our hidden stereotypes and foibles. For as many years as I've been teaching, you'd think I'd learn to stop assuming. For example, in my first month at my current post I had to let go of the following assumptions: that my students could read cursive writing; that I could expect to have a quiet classroom without much struggle; that the MTA would run enough buses for all 4,000 of us to get to school on time.

    Of course, some assumptions must be made. I'd better assume that we can learn something new every day, and assuming that when kids whisper and talk at the back of the classroom that they are not discussing my haircut is probably best for my sanity. Overall, however, I'm going to work on assuming less when I talk to and with my students. To repeat, I'm going to try to listen more, and ask when I'm not sure (and then listen to the answer).

  3. Eliminate teacher-speak. When I started teaching preschool, I quickly learned that "program" was a verb in the Pre-K world. When one wanted to prepare, say, a worksheet for the class, one "programmed the top of the page with the letter B." I remember using this phrase to my mother and receiving a blank expression in return. Without realizing it, I had standardized a demographic-specific expression. It's really easy to do so.

    While I do want my students to be able to use catch-phrase expressions – to say "my individual goal for the quarter was to see an increase in my standard grammar ability" and know what it means – perhaps the time has come to dial down the Teacher Speak. Instead of coding in "Does not work to completion" on a report card, I'll try saying, "You know, I notice that you often don't finish your work. You get about 20 minutes in and then your mind wanders. What could we work on to improve that habit?" After all, when I go to the doctor, I want her to use plain language with me, something that I can grab onto and understand. My students deserve the same.

  4. Use good more sparingly. I'm fond of good. It's a nice word. It's difficult to misunderstand. I also think it has significance for students. At the beginning of this year, one of mine wrote an essay at in which she explained that seeing that I had written "This is well-written. You did a good job," written on the top of one of her essays had great meaning to her, since it was the very first essay she had ever tried writing. Good was more than sufficient for her.

    At the same time, take a moment to search good in the Visual Thesaurus. Cool, right? So many meanings, so many related words. I think I'll try using adept as well as good. Skillful, too, and sound. This might mean having to teach the kids these words as part of a vocabulary lesson, but there are worst things. In fact, maybe I'll do a whole unit on words that have similar meaning to good. I'd like to be the teacher that empowers my students to use bully and cracking.

  5. And the big one: think before speaking. Oh, people. What can I say? We all need to think before we speak. And if you work with children or teenagers, if kids are taking in your words, please think doubly hard before you speak. Remember the lyrics from "Children Will Listen" from Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods:

    Careful the things you say
    Children will listen
    Careful the things you do
    Children will see and learn
    Children may not obey, but children will listen
    Children will look to you for which way to turn.

It so often seems that they are not taking in what we say – I personally feel that my voice must be inaudible whenever I say a page number aloud – but they do, over and over and over. You remember things that teachers said to you when you were in school, both the good and the bad. I certainly do. I can't recollect what exactly I had for breakfast yesterday, but I can recall that my first-grade teacher told me a woman should watch her figure, and my sixth-grade teacher told me that I was whip-smart, and my high school history teacher told me I'd need to be careful with a sense of humor as lacerating as mine. (I went home and looked up lacerating, and felt vaguely complimented). A college professor told me I seemed to have a chip on my shoulder, and another one told me I used humor too much. Not in writing, mind you. Just in life, in general.

These statements were, as I can see now, a reflection more of the person who said them than of me. Just note: these things have stayed with me for a very long time, for over 25 years in some cases. More than anything else, that's what I want you (and me) to take away from this column: Let's choose our words carefully, because words stick.

Let me remember that when I have a misbehaving student out in the hallway for a cooling off period. Let me remember that when a child has his head down on his desk again. And when a parent calls to find out how her son is doing. And when a student asks me for a letter of recommendation by tomorrow. And when no one seems to be listening. And when I'm told I'm a bad teacher. And when I am tired. And when a student isn't staring on her essay. And in all 30 million other possibilities of what I, or you, or we, might face in the classroom today.

Let's stop, listen, think and then, carefully, speak. Children will listen.
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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.