I once made a student cry.
Of course, I had all the excuses in the book: I was tired, she hadn’t worked hard enough on the assignment, she seemed only concerned about the grade.
But really, none of that mattered.
While I lined up groups of students in the back of the room to get their feedback on an essay, I told the others to begin reading the next assignment. Mary inched up to me, sure I would hand back her paper with glowing remarks.
“This is terrible,” I said, handing the paper to her.
Her eyes reddened. Standing there for a moment, she seemed unsure how to respond. Suddenly, the tears trickled, and she moved away quickly, returning to her seat.
To this day, I’m not sure why those words fell out of my mouth.
I know teaching is all about relationships. I know we must show authentic care and concern to create opportunities for students to learn. I know people respond better to kindness than hostility or fear.
Yet, that day I made a student cry. The words we use matter.
When I was in ninth grade, a science teacher stood in the front of my classroom holding a test.
“This person will be president one day,” he said sardonically, reading my answer to the question: What is life?
I remember being confused, but realized he was criticizing me. His words rolled around in my brain for years. The words we use matter.
Research is clear on this.
The more positive and supportive relationships we have with students, the better their attitude, work habits, and achievement.
“Positive teacher-student relationships draw students into the process of learning and promote their desire to learn (given that the content material of the class is engaging and age appropriate)” (Rimm-Kauffman, APA).
As I was working on this piece, I noticed a post from Dean Shareski. He references New York Times columnist David Brooks:
“The reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you’re Oprah,” he says.
So why is it so hard? Why do we hear about teachers who are ill-prepared to show an interest in their students? Why do some teachers maintain a distance in their classrooms?
Sometimes it’s pure incompetence. Other times, we may not realize we have personality conflicts with certain students. I wonder whether my science teacher, for example, just didn’t appreciate my “big picture” personality with all its ambiguities. I tend to live in the gray areas of life, much to the dismay of analytical, linear thinkers. And, finally, we may think too traditionally. For years teachers were “trained” to “manage” classrooms, not smile until Christmas, and control through stern intimidation.
I love the way David Loitz talks about relationships in this post on Cooperative Catalyst.
…we should at least start to try and create opportunities that allow the time and space to support these types of relationships. These types of relationship are not served by organizational systems that do not allow people to get to know each other as the unique persons they are. They are not supported by rigid, narrow paths of learning and experience, by power hierarchy that showcases a lack of trust and respect in people.â€¨It calls for a relationship of persons not a relationship of power.
A relationship of persons not a relationship of power. I love that.
In our quest to define what we need for our students and their future, I argue that it will be in the relationships that we find our humanity.
Out of the blue one day years ago, my twelfth-grade composition teacher told me to try out for the school play.
“You would be perfect for the female role,” she said.
What? Go on stage and act? In front of people? What was she thinking? But she had spent the year building social capital with me. I trusted and admired her. She cared about me.
So, I auditioned and got the part. And it was life changing for me.
Our words matter.
Susan Carter Morgan
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I really appreciated this post. Thank you for sharing and reminding all of us about the power of positive relationships.
i love this Susan:
But she had spent the year building social capital with me.
what a great measure of success – you saying it about her.
thank you for sharing.
monika, I’ve been looking for her for years now. Wish I could find her and thank her.
Hi Susan – This is such a key point. One of my issues with the current education climate is that certain policies unintentionally undercut the aspects of teaching and learning that build these relationships. Instead of a mad focus on the almighty dollar, we are on a mad rush for test scores – a different currency for sure but the human element tends to be ignored or at least undervalued. Less cooperative learning / project based learning also provides less chance for students to learn each-others strengths and weaknesses and empathy … I see it in my own classroom (and am now trying even harder to bring those elements back).
Empathy and trust–without those, we won’t make much progress, will we?
This really hit home with me. Ten years ago I started teaching technology to students in K-5th grade. Having come from an upper school I had no experience working with the wee folk. The one thing I had to learn quickly was that patience mattered. I learned to stop myself before reacting and ask, “how do I want these little girls to remember this moment?” One day a first grader pulled out her tooth and held it up for all of us to see. She was pleased as punch to lose that tooth. All I could see was the blood and saliva on the keyboard and work area. I remember consciously making the the choice and invited the class to dance in celebration of the lost tooth as she and I made our way to the bathroom!
I’ll be sharing this with my colleagues. Thanks for the reminder.
What a powerful question to ask ourselves, Renee. Thanks for sharing that.
You’re right,Susan, words matter at any age for a student. In my second year of university, while working on my Ed. degree, my cooperating teacher looked at me and said she can always tell whether or not a pre-service teacher has what it takes to be a great teacher, and with me she just didn’t see it. It was devastating and stuck with me for years.
Oh my, Shelley. Don’t you wish she could see you now? And from a cooperating (model) teacher no less. How sad. Good for you pushing through–what a gift you are to your own students now.
This post resonates with me on so many levels, thank you for writing it. I am happy to share it with everyone I come across, words are some of the most powerful tools we have in our hands to terrify or to nurture. It is what we choose to do with them that define us as a person.
You are so right.
Words are oh so powerful. They can build or crush a spirit in seconds; they can lift or erode self-worth; they can honour or dishonour learning. This post was a wonderful way to be reminded of the privilege and responsibilities of learning and teaching.
I have had high school students write about “the power of words,” sharing a moment where a word or phrase changed the course of their thinking, and perhaps even their lives. It was a privilege to be in their audience. How much our students teach us about the human condition!
Through reflection, students developed their own insights into the situations they had experienced. They learned a skills–framing and sometimes reframing–that they will need throughout their lives.
The sting of thoughtless or reckless words lingers. Sometimes we wish for a do-over. Often, we have an opportunity to take ownership and make amends with the person we have hurt. Always, we can choose to invest our wisdom in today’s learners and learning.
That’s a great assignment, Maureen. I’m sure your students realize the value and carry that with them for years.
Susan, Thanks for the post. I too have gone through a real transformation as a teacher. Very early in my career I was the “get tough” guy, the “0” guy, and all other things I am not now. When I started focusing on building relationships with students all other things became less important. When I realized that teaching is all about building student confidence – that my students believe they can be successful – I stopped doing so many things that were getting in the way of my students maximizing their success.
Words can cut deep no matter what anyone wants us to believe. As teachers, we have tremendous influence – positive or negative – over our students and should be mindful of what we say at all times. i learned that lesson the hard way.
I think many of us have, Tom. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Making a student cry is probably the worst feeling in the world. However, I can guarantee it will happen even if we try not to hurt a student’s feelings, because a lot has to do with trust, our relationship with the student, their perceptions (usually based on other factors) and expectations (obviously, even if you had said nothing, I think she would have cried because she had expected a totally different outcome), and peers. The words that hurt are those in which a student feels criticized without voice. What hurts a teacher student relationship is not being able to discuss what has happened with the teacher (one way communication-teacher to student which leaves the student feeling powerless).
As Renee mentioned, one thing I have learned to do through teaching online, is to wait to let my initial response pass before I say anything. The next step is to make sure I have all the information before I say something. Did they misunderstand the assignment? Did they not do the work because they didn’t feel good or something happened? Did they KNOW that what they produced was subpar? I learned from my teaching supervisor to ask first, what their expectations were and how they think they did. Then I ease in to determine where things might have gone wrong. I always begin with MY VIEW, making sure I say things like, my view was… or my intention was…
Finally, I ALWAYS address a student’s upset (whether it is crying, anger, acting out, body language). I think also that there are some students that need those strong words to motivate them. Often by asking them their expectations, these students will admit to not doing what they should have. I had a case where a student plagiarized. After meeting one on one he admitted to it and said he just did not have enough time to complete the paper. I failed him on the paper. But he knew from that point on that he had to step up to his work because I would not let him get away with it. I told him as he explained to me his reasons how disappointed I was in him because I really thought he was a good student. However, he would not make it through college if he continued with these bad habits. It was a very uncomfortable conversation between the two of us, but there was mutual understanding in the end.
Even if we make a student cry, we can always make it up by discussing it with them later. If we don’t it becomes the elephant in the classroom.
Ah, one of the advantages of working online asynchronously–the wait time. Yet, you are right, even face to face, the conversations we have will help build trust and relationships.
I also forgot to say that sometimes a “sorry” really helps. I have made mistakes in the past where I was disgusted with the students’ work…until I realized that my instructions could be interpreted multiple ways. I was the reason they did not do well…not them! Then I had to stand up in front of the class and apologize. That makes it easier for them to do the same I think.
I agree deeply with this article. Language, I will also argue, consists of both words and body. As a young school student, I often “felt” as if a teacher didn’t want to acknowledge me, through their “body language”. This happens all too often to children with disabilities, labeled or visible. Many are treated as if it’s understood they will, with absoluteness, be slower learners than the other students. A teacher with this preconceived notion can inflict serious emotional damage on that disabled child’s confidence. That teacher has already decided it’s not worth their time to build a relationship with a child that will ‘never get it’.
Of course I’m not suggesting this is the case with all teachers that have this responsibility. My autistic nephew has a very loving and nurturing teacher who, somehow, sees only potential, even when some of her children seem to progress for a while, then, regress into old habits and behaviors that keep them from really learning.
We, as a human race, need to stay aware of our “better angels” and avoid sarcasm or criticism without explanation, especially if we are charged with educating ANYONE. To educate very simply means “to develop mentally, morally or aesthetically, especially by instruction”. Sarcasm, snark or criticism do not come close to instruction. Those things, also, do not develop a feeling of trust between teacher and student. Educators are not perfect automatons without flaw. However, it’s important they are reflective, like Sue, so the words our educators speak become as important to them as the impact they will have.
I couldn’t agree more! I recently attended the International Democratic Education Conference (with David Loitz) and that was one of my biggest take-aways: more than any one approach to education or schooling, it’s the way we build and maintain relationships. Thank you for writing!