As educators, what we say and how we say it may create a memorable moment that will last a lifetime. That’s serious business. The memory will, very possibly, help shape the self-image of that student. That’s serious business. Do not under estimate the power of words and the impact one can have in an instant of time.
The power to influence and to create a lifelong memory in a child or parent is a serious responsibility, privilege and, most importantly, an opportunity.
Adults, of all ages, have memories of moments with teachers and interactions that left impressions – both positive and
negative. One of the intriguing joys of reconnecting with old high school friends on Facebook is the swapping of memories from childhood and teenage years. Occasionally there is a story of a teacher that resonates with a wide range of people and it’s amazing how far and wide the influence of that teacher extended.
How memories are coded into our brains is a topic best left to cognitive psychologists and brain researchers. There is logic to the association of memories with emotions. An act of kindness, the sensation of belonging, the anger of a betrayal, the embarrassment from belittling, the hurt from a reprimand, the joy from a job well done, and so on, are all potential moments where the chemistry aligns and a forever memory is coded. Emotional moments result in potential memories. And these are triggered by words. Words Have Power!
But, it is so easy to make a mistake.
My 22 year old son is an outstanding young man. He had many great years as a student and, by all accounts, did very well throughout school. But, he struggled in kindergarten. 17 years ago, in kindergarten, I well remember walking around the corner outside his classroom one day and his art teacher said to me “You know, Jared is a naughty boy”. The comment, on the walkway of school, was not necessarily a surprise. Inappropriately timed and delivered, but not a surprise. I’m not sure of my response but it left an impression that will last a lifetime. I knew he was struggling as a KG student (it didn’t help that the class had 3 teachers due to a maternity leave and an incompetent sub). It was a train wreck of a year. It also didn’t help that my son inherited my dislike of art and a total lack of fine motor skills and just couldn’t hang with the KG art crowd! But, I digress…
The point is, I’ll never forget that moment.
The other day, a teacher blurted out during a parent-student-teacher conference that maybe the Gr 9 student “had a learning disability and she should get tested”. Hmm…not exactly the best time or place or person to open up that dialogue. The kid was in tears, the parents were upset, and the situation wasn’t great. Here’s the fact though. Counselor follow up, family follow up, and the fact is that this was the conversation that needed to happen. I guarantee that the ill-timed comment created a moment that will last a lifetime for this student BUT the result will be positive as an assessment will be conducted and very likely will provide good information about her learning. In this case, a mistake will be parlayed into an opportunity. The point is, words matter, and powerful moments can be created. Words can help shape self-identity, self perception.
Words matter and sometimes you never know what words to use with which parents. During a recent series of conferences one teacher relayed an interesting set of conversations. Parent one took exception to the use of the word “struggling” to describe their daughter’s difficulties. As a result, the teacher approached the next parent of a child who was having difficulties with greater caution. But, after dancing around the conversation, the parent said “Just tell it to me like it is, she’s lazy, right?” Lazy is a word we should NEVER use to describe a student. It is demeaning and demoralizing. In this case, the parent wanted a harsh word! The point is that often we must dance around the descriptive language we want to use with parents because Words Matter, and must be carefully chosen at all times. And, of course, knowing the audience requires the ability to filter our words. It’s challenging.
Ryan Hollett wrote a blog post entitled: False Memories: Understanding the Power of Words in Education
People tend to value and cherish their memories as significant parts of their identity, so the potential we have to influence this in other people should not be taken lightly. As parents or teachers, our language and lessons control more than just what children learn and know; they can determine how children come to experience their own identity and the world around them. We are shaped not only by our past, but by the way that we recall it. Accordingly, as parents and educators, we have a responsibility to at least be aware of the influence we can have on a child’s response to our words. This is another instance where great power comes with the burden of great responsibility. As we continue to think about a child’s educational experience, it is perhaps important to ask yourself: How would you like your child to remember his/her education?
Another interesting blog post/article was written by Dr Robert Brooks entitled The Impact of Teachers: A Story of Indelible Memories and Self-Esteem.
The power of our words as educators is important to remember. We must build school environments in which every student feels cared for by the adults. Therefore words must be carefully monitored, chosen, and considered.