What kind of word wall are you helping students build this year? By word wall, I don’t mean one that helps them learn vocabulary terms. Think about the language we use as educators with children every day. Are these words and our accompanying attitude important in our relationship with kids?
Reflecting on my own memories of school, I am fortunate to be able to fondly recall teachers that spoke to me in a manner that empowered me and allowed me to have a voice. In their classrooms, these educators fostered a safe place to speak, learn, and dream. So many years later, I can still recount what I gained from the experiences those teachers provided. Those are the good memories, but what about those that weren’t so great? Some classroom experiences leave a different type of memory. I’ll share one to illustrate my point:
One day in early September while beginning 4th grade, my classroom’s discussion somehow turned to cancer and I offered some information on what I knew. I explained how devastating it was and related some treatments and their impact on people struggling to survive the disease. My teacher sarcastically stated, “Thank you Doctor Kilgore!” In response, my classmates laughed aloud as a group and the nickname “Doctor” stuck with me for a very long time. I was unbelievably embarrassed and although I don’t think this teacher meant any harm, she certainly didn’t understand me or my point of view very well at all.
My summer had been a very painful one emotionally and I returned to school having spent the previous weeks with my mother as she underwent life saving cancer treatment. During that time I spent hours each day sitting in the waiting room at M. D. Anderson hospital in Houston. Once the books I brought were read, I passed the remaining time each day by reading brochures and information on cancer while also watching patients and their families. Many of these people were crying and dealing with news from the doctor that was unfortunately not as positive as my mom’s ended up being eventually.
Simply asking me the question “Wow, you know a great deal about this disease, how did you come by all that information?” or a simple “Thank you for sharing that knowledge with us“ would have provided an opportunity to gain understanding. In contrast this teacher built a wall between us using words alone that never got torn down throughout that school year. She had created a barrier to trust that I would not venture near for fear of being ridiculed again.
What we say to our students has an impact. Each and every time we open our mouths they hear us and they remember. A very dear friend of mine once taught me that I should always view my students as “still developing” in every interaction that I have with them. This has served me well and sums up the way that I believe I should work with all students. I strive to be a facilitator and am focused on helping all learners grow with every discussion, interaction, and experience that I have the honor of sharing with them.
Words truly matter. How will the learners we serve remember us?