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Teachers, Choose Your Words Wisely

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas


Teachers' WordsI love math. I love the way you can manipulate the numbers, the patterns you can create, the concrete and abstract thinking, problem solving, and all the little tricks you learn to solve challenging  problems.  However; before you start thinking I am a math genius, I should mention I am referring to elementary math and not that math that has evolved to include the mixing of letters and numbers; that is still a foreign language to me. 


I was thinking about how much I enjoy math while helping a friend prepare for her college math exam (she is working on her degree in early education). We were working with fractions using pattern blocks and fractions strips, of which I find to be pretty neat. She was becoming a bit frustrated that she was not able to understand this particular problem. In her frustration, she shared with me an experience she had with her fourth grade teacher and why she feels so intimidated by math.


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Contrasting Moments in Math Instruction

Unpleasant Math Memories

She told me her teacher would flick her on the head and call her a “dumb bunny” when she did not understand a problem or answered incorrectly.  I stared at her in disbelief. “She flicked you on the head?”  I  was shocked that her teacher physically hit her. While my friend didn't think much of the “flick,” it was the words she was focused on. “Yea, and she called me a dumb bunny.” she replied. “Ever since those words have stuck with me. I can't do math!”


A Proud Math Moment

At the end of the week I went to pick up my son from math tutoring. Yes, I do not tutor my own children. I learned a long time ago that it is better to pay someone else (that's another blog altogether).


I quietly peeked through the door window to watch how the session was going. Since it was after school, the halls were quiet and I could hear the conversation. His teacher was so patiently explaining a concept which involved letter/number combination, and giving him example after example.


I watched my son (who hates math) work out the problem. Step by step she encouraged and praised him. When he made a mistake, she gently said, “Are you sure? Check again”. When he finished the problem and did it correctly, she told him she knew he could do it, he just needed more practice. I watched a smile slowly creep on my son's face! A proud moment.


Such a contrast in the two teachers. It really started me thinking: how much power do we as educators have in our words?


Have you ever done the following?

  • teased a child
  • ignored a student just because you knew they were going to ask the same thing AGAIN!
  • issued a hurtful threat
  • become short with a student
  • constantly point out what student is doing wrong in front of class
  • yell at a student
  • become disrespectful when angry
  • assume the worst about a student
  • use sarcasm
  • talk badly about kids in teacher's workroom, hall, in classroom, or in front of kids
  • deliberately humiliate student in front of class

Did you know these behaviors may be considered bullying? According to a Susan Fitzell article, they could be. 


After reading the article, I realized I needed to do some serious reflecting! I discovered a few things.


My Sarcastic Words Came Back to Haunt Me

I have used sarcasm in the classroom. Just the other day, I was starting to check math homework with my 3rd grade class. I called on a specific student to give me an answer, and he asked me what page we were on. I smiled and said in joking manner, “Are you on the bus with us today Steven? We left a few minutes ago.” He laughed, the class laughed. He proceeded to give me the answer once he found the page.


Later in the day, I heard him talking with his friends. He must have missed something in the conversation because he said to them, “I guess I missed the bus again.” OUCH! That sarcastic comment I gave in a joking manner stuck with him. While he laughed with the class, was he really hurt inside?


Is sarcasm acceptable humor? Do students understand the difference?

Ms. Fitzell states some kids can't read innuendos and social signals behind sarcasm. Therefore, they can misunderstand and be hurt by the comment made.


Does it even have a place in the classroom?

I guess it would depend on your students. Do they have an advanced understanding of language and understand the “joke” behind a sarcastic comment? Are you using a tone of voice or body language that would suggest humor? I think it would also depend on the relationship you have built with your students.


While my 3rd graders do not know me as well, since I am a long term sub, my 5th graders last year knew when I was joking and when I was serious. They learned my mannerisms, my body language, and tone of voice. Although I should caution you, you are the role model in the classroom, if you use sarcasm as humor, be prepared to have it given back to you -- respectfully of course!


Addressing Mistakes & Making Amends

We all have those days where report cards are due, there is a  staff meeting right after school, a parent conference after that, and all the other daily “stuff” that wears us down. We all have moments where we have reached our limit and although not intentional, a comment slipped out and may have done some damage. I have been there!


When you slip, own up to it! You apologize to the class, the student, and if you need to the parents. Yes, even the parents because you know little Johnny is going to go home and tell mommy you said something not nice. I have sent emails to parents sharing how I may have said something that upset their child. I explained that I apologized to the child but wanted them to know. You will be amazed how many students and parents respect you for admitting your mistakes.


We want our students to be able to make mistakes and feel safe in doing so. Learning how to correct those mistakes is also a valuable lesson and who greater to set that tone than their teacher.


Reflecting on a Lesson Learned

So what have I learned from these two encounters? I have learned to be mindful of what I say in my class.  I posted a note on my lesson planner: “Choose your words wisely, as you never know if you will have to eat them later!” I want to be encouraging to my students, and listen more intently to their needs. If I don't have the answer, I will seek out someone who does. Teaching is all about flexibility and learning. I want to be sure I can reach those students who face challenges learning, but I want to reach them with patience, care, and encouragment. 


We have all heard that old proverb, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Well, I disagree. Words can be very hurtful and can make a huge impact our own students.


My friend remembers the words of her 4th grade teacher and now feels inadequate to even try math.  Her teacher left a lasting impact on her life with just two words! I want to make sure the words my students hear from me are words that will stay with them forever, “Great job!”.


How have your words made an impact to your students, whether good or bad? Share in the comments section!

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