Education Week contributor Marilyn Rhames, children’s book author, Patricia Polacco, and I have something in common: We were each inspired to become a writer because of what a teacher said. Although our stories derive from childhood, educators at all levels must keep in mind that the words we speak to our students may resonate throughout a student’s lifetime.
Rhames and Ms. White
In a post last week, Rhames’s quip of a headline caught my interest. This piece, titled, “Thank You, Ms. White, For Writing Me Off,” explained her bittersweet attempts to please the nearly always unpleasant Ms. White, her second grade teacher (22 August, 2012). Most of us can probably relate to the childhood struggle of trying to win over an adult like the invincible Ms. White, who Rhames described as a woman whose “treachery magnified [her] goodness, the few times [she] chose to show it.” For example, after calling her “dumb” and making her cry the entire year, Ms. White suddenly praised a short story Rhames had written. Rhames stated: “Ms. White made quite a fuss over my story. She told the whole class that I was a good writer and she read my story aloud to the entire class. She put a gold star sticker on my paper and hung it up on the “Writers’ Wall.” The rest becomes history as Rhames went on to success as a writer and is now a writing teacher with a passion to inspire others.
Polacco, the Bully, and Mr. Falker
For Polacco, her bully came in the form of another student who tormented her over her then unidentified struggles with dyslexia, disnumeria, and disgraphia. Her book, “Thank You Mr. Falker,” tells the story of how one teacher, Mr. Falker, became a hero as he figured out how to help Polacco make sense of words. However, he did more than just help her read, Polacco states he helped move her from the unsafe world within which the bully had placed her. She wrote that Falker “pulled me into bright sunlight and sat me on a shooting star.” Polacco also went on to write books and inspire others.
Mrs. Baker and I
A teacher also inspired me. In 5th grade I had a creative writing class with Mrs. Baker who showed me the never-ending wonders of composing in a variety of genres, creating a book from my works, and winning writing awards. I remember the day I sat next to the heating unit in the room, watching the fan blades twirl around. During a moment of writer’s block, I wanted to see if my ink pen could stop a blade, so I shoved it between the slots of the vent. There was a horrible grinding sound as shredded plastic and ink showered down upon me and several students seated around me. Mrs. Baker calmly directed us to clean up the mess. Then she spoke the magic words: “You’ll never become a writer if you keep grinding up your pens.”
Additionally, the next semester I watched as my parents argued with the principal to allow me to take creative writing again and Mrs. Baker came to my aid, saying that I should be allowed to pursue my interest and talent. I took creative writing a second time. Similar to Rhames and Polacco, I pursued a career as a writer and an educator.
More importantly, I also learned how to speak up for myself and for others who could not speak for themselves, and this has been an underlying theme in much of what I have written (e.g., Nevolijani: Portrait of a Macedonian Village ). I realized how powerful our words, especially as educators, truly are. Polacco stated that “mean words have a terrible power,” and Rhames pointed out that “For every child like me who managed to scrape out some good despite the abuse, there are a dozen precious souls who may never recover.”
So the question is: As a teacher, who will your words make you become in the eyes of your students? Will you be the antihero like Ms. White, the hero like Mr. Falker, or the advocate, Mrs. Baker? Equally important, how will you avoid uttering words that may discourage a student for a lifetime?
Your Students and You
As another school year begins, it’s important to reflect upon stories such as these and how powerful your words as an educator truly are. Most of us want to help, inspire, and be a hero to our students. Although none of us are perfect or without those bad days at work, Joshua Riddle’s “5 Things to Practice for Effective Communication Skills” should help you encourage rather than discourage your students. Make sure your
• Body language reflects respect for and an interest in what your students are sharing. This means a relaxed posture, making eye contact, nodding to reflect understanding, avoiding movements that indicate impatience (e.g., shifting your weight from one foot to the other), and other such non-verbal ques.
• Speech and attentiveness are focused. When you are sharing information with students, be clear and concise. When they are communicating with you, pay close attention to the words they are saying and how they are delivering them.
• Communication is consistent and honest. Students may interrupt you in the hall or on your way to lunch, but be willing to stop, even if you need to suggest another time to discuss a concern. Also, be honest but tactful. Sincerely encourage students where they display some skills and talents rather than playing cheerleader no matter what they do. People can sense insincerity, and that can be discouraging to students.
• Patience is fully engaged. You may not understand what the student is saying, you may be tempted to quickly dismiss it as Ms. White did to Rhames when she shared it was her mother’s birthday, or you may want to jump in and articulate the message for the student. Resist these temptations and allow the student the time to speak.
• Response is to quickly follow up, especially if your assistance is needed. Mr. Falker clearly saw the immediate need of Polacco’s struggles and followed up as quickly as possible with assistance. This builds trust between you and your students. (20 January, 2012)
Although the above may be geared a bit more toward younger students, don’t forget that adults need this support as well. Consider the fairly common scenario of a student who has recently lost a job and is attending college to train for a new career. The setback is not only financial, it’s also emotional for these students. Good communication from an instructor along with some encouragement will go a long way in helping such students achieve their new goals.
Overall, each and every day educators must remember that our words and our roles impact students far beyond the moment or the classroom. As the frequently referenced quotation from Christa McAuliffe goes: “I touch the future. I teach.”
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