About Words & Their Power

Before I start this post I’d just like to apologize for not posting for a long time… But I was on vacation and away from internet access. it was good to unplug, but it’s even better to be back! :-)

 

 

How do you choose your words?

 

Today I caught myself thinking about the power our words (or anybody else’s for that matter) have. Of course everyone must have considered the issue every once in a while, especially when we are on the receiving end of a more powerful set of them. Words have the power to fill hearts or break them; lift spirits or kill them. they can make you laugh, cry (even if when no one else is looking), learn or doubt yourself. I’d go as far as say that wars have started because of things that were said – or so it was claimed.

 

But I’m not going to get that philosophical or start talking about world peace here – though it is a worthy topic :-) Since the main (or only) focus of my dwellings on this blog is teaching, I’m going to focus on the power words have in the classroom, more specifically the power the words of a teacher can have. Do we have (or keep) in mind how powerful or meaningful our words can be when we direct them at our students when we say them? Oh, I’m sure many times we do. We even measure and carefully choose our words sometimes.

 

Not too long ago I wrote a guest post at Ken Wilson’s blog about Giving Meaningful Feedback to Students, about listening to them. And I believe what I’m going to say here relates to it. I think we’re not fully aware of what we say or the effect our words may have on students 100% of the time. Sometimes we go on automatic mode. When we are drilling (Yes – I DO drill – Shame on me? I don’t think so… He who does not drill may throw the first stone!) or checking students’ answers / opinions about something. And we don’t really stop to think about what (or how?) we talk to students. “Great!” “Perfect!” “Good job!” Do students take those words as real praise directed at them or just empty words indicating whether they’ve provided a proper correct answer or not? Does this change if we add a personalized comment? Something like “Great! I also like going to the beach on my holidays Julia!” or “Yes! And what was the last film you’ve watched Lucas?”.

 

I think it does – for the same reason I mentioned in my guest post for Ken. It shows students we listened to what they said. But then a question emerges: Is it humanly possible to do that, to give personalized feedback every time we give feedback to students – orally or other? It looks pretty on picture, I know. Yet, reality seems to be a little different.

 

Most teachers I know have way too many students (in each class and/or altogether) to make it feasible. Some of us (I include myself in this group!) have to do on-going, continuous evaluation, which means attributing a “grade” to students’ performance as they talk and produce in class, which makes it even harder to focus on content – rather than form – as we listen to students in class. Are we to blame? Is anyone? should we ditch form? I see that we are – at least I am – distancing myself from the focus on form slowly but surely. Would that be the answer? Is it that simple?

 

 

I wish I hadn't said that!!!

And that’s not all. Sometimes we’re are just on a bad day/moment. A specific moment always comes to mind when I think of that – one that had a happy ending for me, but could’ve had disastrous results. I had a 15-year-old student – a boy – who would mention the word “sex”every 10th word he said in class. The first few classes I (tried to) ignore it. I made a few remarks and light reprimands. “Come on, not the topic being we’re discussing…” or  “Please, you’re making other students a bit uncomfortable…” or even a direct ” Not appropriate.” But he kept on going. So you can imagine how tired of it I was after a couple of months. Then, one day as they were doing something I was sitting by each student and giving individual feedback, he started on his usual routine and I just blurted out, from across the classroom – as I was sitting beside one of his classmates: “Dear, people who actually have sex don’t talk about it.”

 

As expected, a big uproar followed, giggling… He looked absolutely taken by surprise – so was I to be honest – and shocked by my unexpected reply. He barely spoke for the rest of the lesson. And I regretted my words almost as soon as I had uttered them. What was I thinking?!?? How could I have talked to a student in that way? So, when class was over I went straight to my academic coordinator’s office and told her what had happened, saying we should not be surprised if we heard a complaint from the boy or his parents. No complaints came from it though – and he stopped his inappropriate behavior in class after that. He actually came after me and hugged me, said what a great teacher I was and how much he missed me whenever he saw me even in the semesters that followed, when he was no longer my student. However, the way things turned out do not – in my opinion – make what I did, what I said, right. I mean, it was right, but not fit for me, as his English teacher, to say.

 

I’ve had students change decisions (even one or two career path changes) after talking to me. I’ve had students quit studying English or really start taking it seriously. I’ve had ( a lot!) students who completely ignored what I said to them. As teachers, we have to remember many of our students think very highly of us and our opinions. we have to remember our words matter. And we should try to keep that in mind as often as possible. Whether in oral feedback, comments, written corrections/feedback or just an “innocent” conversation after class. what we say matters.

 

And I think (and hope) my words here were not just empty words thrown into the blogosphere. :-)

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32 comments on “About Words & Their Power

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Renshaw, Jeremy Harmer, Ian James, Marcia Lima, Sean Banville and others. Sean Banville said: RT @evab2001: RT @AnnaMusielak RT @cecilialcoelho Back to blogging: About Words & Their Power : http://bit.ly/iiRMoP [...]

  2. Your have the gift of words! I was so moved by your post!

    Such a day-to day-issue we must constantly be aware of in class, the tension between being a TEACHER and a person who reacts…

    • Hi Naomi :-)

      Thanks for your kind words :-) But as the anectode in the post shows, my words can either be a gift or a curse ;-) I have the great flaw of having (according to some people who know me) very few filters – meaning I usually say exactly what I think without holding back. And it’s gotten me into some difficult situations. Of course everyone has to be aware of the words you use, but I see that people who are commonly taken as role models – such as teachers, parents, etc – have to be extra careful.

      I have just remembered that as a young girl I was devastated and decided to quit both ballet and piano classes after receiving negative feedback and harsh words about how inappropriate / unfit my hands and legs were. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have been honest and told me about my possible inability for both activities. I stick by my total honesty policy here. But I have learned there are ways and ways of saying things.

      But we can’t avoid reactions – we’re only human. :-)

  3. David Warr says:

    HI Cecilia, it seems like you’ve lifted a weight off your shoulders, telling this story, glad it had a happy ending. It’s a good anecdote, the power of shock therapy.

    • Hi David!

      Shock therapy indeed – for both of us. It really shook me when I realized what I had just said. I’m usually a pretty docile person :-) But luckily enough it really seems it was just what he needed: someone to give him some limits, someone he knew cared about him. A little tough love never killed anyone eh?

      But regarding the lifting a weigh off my shoulders… well I have to admit I lifted that weigh the first time I shared this story with some friends who are also teachers and they all pretty much said I had done what they had thought/felt like doing one too many times in class ;-)

      Thanks for stopping by David. Always a great pleasure to hear from you. :-)

  4. jeremyharmer says:

    I feel like I am repeating myself a bit here, but the very best movie I know which deals with exactly the issues you are discussing here is the french film ‘Entre les Murs’ (called ‘The Class’ in English). Here’s the trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8HWJqgMAhU

    The reason it’s worth mentioning again is precisely because the central incident in the film (for me) happens when a teacher, under extreme provocation, says the WRONG THING – or, as your blog says – uses the wrong words. The effect is devastating.

    Teachers’ words matter, and the ability to use them correctly is part of professionalism, I think. Your ‘sex’ comments is completely understandable – and wonderfully effective. Most of the time (if we are ‘on the ball’) we get away with it. But as you rightly say, it might have gone the other way!

    Risky business, teaching!

    Jeremy

    • Risky yes, without a doubt. But so rewarding and full of wonderful surprises at the same time :-)

      You are absolutely right Jeremy, and the film you mentioned (which I really enjoyed watching btw) is a perfect example of how such situation can go wrong – very very wrong. Great film tip!

      but one thing on your comment made me think a little…. Does the fact that my inappropriate comment actually worked out in the end exempts it from being unprofessional? Was my comment unprofessional? Looking back, I think it was. His behavior was also appalling and he surely deserved (and needed as the result evidences) it, but can we, as teachers, do that? Despite the fact I’m actually criticizing myself, I think not. What could I have done? I could have called his parents and talked about his behavior, but that is something I always have as a last resource when dealing with teenagers, because it breaks the trust bond I try to form from day 1.

      Food for thought. :-)

  5. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Cecilia and welcome back!

    You’ve brought up an important point here – as teachers we have the power to motivate and encourage but use the wrong words or say them in the wrong way, and we can have quite the opposite effect!

    I find this especially true with young learners. It’s very easy to upset the little ones with a seemingly insignificant comment and learning how to avoid such problems is a big challenge for any teacher.

    I find the most important thing with kids is to say what you mean. There’s nothing worse than promising something be it a reward, a game or a special lesson and then failing to follow through. Likewise, in terms of classroom mangement/discipline, I always feel there’s no point saying anything you can’t back up. We have the responsibility to show our students that people should say what they mean and pay attention to how they say it!

    • Hi Dave,

      And you brought up an equally important point – how it’s even more important to choose your words carefully (and always mean and be able to do what you say) when you’re teaching young learners. I don’t teach kids – have done it gazillions of years ago, in the beginning of my teaching career – and maybe that’s one of the reasons. I find it extremely hard (hence my deep respect for those who teach kids) to deal with kids and get very anxious when they get upset.

      But I’d like to point out that I believe you focused on kids (your target audience) and I feel an obligation to include all students: when you say teachers have an obligation to mean what they say, to follow through and show wqe have a responsibility about what we say. I know you agree with me on this :-)

      Thanks for the warm welcome back ;-) I’ve missed this!

  6. Hi Cecilia,

    Good to see you back and I hope you enjoyed your break. I remember singing a little song when I was small it was “Sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never hurt me”. Perhaps parents made it up for their children if they were being bullied but in reality it’s so wrong! Words have the power to hurt as much as a good kick!

    I don’t always say the right thing but I try very hard. As teachers we have to be so very careful about what we say which is not always easy!

    Enjoyed reading your story,

    Thanks

    Leahn

    • Thanks for the great feedback Leahn :-) And thanks for reminding me of the saying… It could be the center / beginning of a great conversation/discussion in class, don’t you think? How words sometimes hurt more than being physically hurt :-)

  7. Just remembered “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” That was it!

  8. marisapavan says:

    Hi Ceci!

    Still sorry I haven’t had the time in London to meet you!
    What in inspirational post! I’ve just learnt to be a more sensible word user. There have been events in my life that have taught me so. I’ve changed from being a naive word user (yes “naive” at my age!) to a sensible one. And that’s also made me a better listener.
    Hugs from Argentina!
    Marisa

    • Hi Marisa!

      Yes, it’s was really a bummer we couldn’t get to meet in London. But as I told you before, I’m sure we’ll have other opportunities:-) I guess we live and learn how to be more sensible words users with things that happen in our lives both inside and outside the classroom. And I loved what you said about how being a more sensible, attentive word user makes us better listeners as well. That’s such an essential characteristic for a teacher: being a good listener. Thanks for bringing that up!
      Big, warm hugs from Brazil :-) waiting for a visit! ;-)

  9. David Warr says:

    Hi again Ceci, I remember I made a little plant by Mother Teresa about this topic: https://languagegarden.wordpress.com/2010/10/20/kind-words/
    There’s an activity plan for it as well.

    • Hi David!

      I loved the activity and have the perfect lesson to use it in. There’s a chapter in a level I teach where we talk about role models and it fits as if it had been tailor-made. Thanks for sharing it! :-)

      Cheers!

  10. seburnt says:

    I’m not entirely sure you were in the wrong for saying what you did. Sometimes authoritative statements from adults help temper a situation that could be making other students uncomfortable. I remember a classmate of mine in highschool often making homophobic comments and getting a laugh out of it. One day, our English teacher said to him “You know, often people who make homophobic comments are unsure of their own sexuality”–a true enough statement. Not once did that student (or any) make comments like that again for fear of being themselves the brunt of future homophobic comments. Whether yours or this teacher’s statements were the most appropriate ones for the teacher to say, it is part of a teacher’s responsibility to foster a safe and comfortable learning environment for their students.

    • Hi Tyson,

      See, I agree with you in how what I said wasn’t wrong. He needed that, a big shock to shake him and make him see what he was doing was wrong. but I think there’s a big difference between something being wrong and inappropriate. And I still believe what I said was right but inappropriate for me, as his teacher, to say. Maybe I could have found other ways – maybe not as rapidly efficient as this. I loved the anecdote you told, and it’s the exact same thing. And just as in my case, what your teacher said was right, timely and obviously efficient – but still inappropriate.

      Yes, it’s part of our jobs to foster a comfortable environment for our students, but there are other ways of doing it. They may take longer and demand more work and persistance from the teacher, but we wouldn’t expose ourselves. I’m starting to wonder whether it wasn’t disrespectful of me to have said what I did to the student – maybe even as disrespectful as the student had been with his classmates when he talked about sex all the time.

      • seburnt says:

        Maybe. Fostering a comfortable environment in the long run in what you perceive as an inappropriate way might be at the expense of a lot of time it could have been comfortable with little difference to that student. Sometimes I wonder if our industry is currently too concerned (and even unnecessarily) about students’ feelings and emotional stability and less about what’s effective. I’m not sure.

        =)

      • That’s an interesting concept you brought up and something I have thought about often. Are we concentrating too much of our attention on students’ feelings and emotional stability? Maybe we really are. But then again, wouldn’t that be necessary to have an environment where students learn best? Isn’t students feeling good inside the classroom and with the teacher something that makes them learn better? And do we necessarily overlook effectiveness to get that accomplished? I know, we don’t have to, but we many times focus too hard on the emotional side. Something to be aware of so as to avoid it.

        =)

      • seburnt says:

        I think we must continue this discussion. Perhaps in July…

      • Looking forward to it… I would really love to :-)

  11. [...] in her blog Box of Chocolates gave a wonderful example of how something she said when she didn’t mean to actually worked out [...]

  12. [...] Cecilia’s post was about bad behaviour, and how (not) to deal with it. On the radio today, there was an interview with a politician about prisons. His belief, and mine, is that prisons don’t work for many young kids who have had it rough, and need support rather than more isolation and scorn. Before it, there was the programme about the Roma community, who all spoke with genuineness about their hopes and fears. [...]

  13. You’ve mention an important point , as teachers we have the power to motivate and encourage but use the wrong words or say them in the wrong way, and we can have quite the opposite effect!
    I wrote a post which as I think you will get benefit from it as I think.

    http://educationland.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/teachers-attitude-and-students-progress/

    Thanks

  14. Dara says:

    Hi! I love your blog! thank you :)

    Just to share a saying (don’t know exactly who’s the author):

    “Don’t use time or words carelessly. Neither can be retrieved” What about teaching this to our students? or better said what about getting them to think about this?

    Anyway, if we didn’t have a mouth we, for sure, couldn’t make mistakes, could we? ;)

    Cheers!

    • I’m happy you liked the blog – it’s something that has had a big impact in my life as a teacher, made me become even more reflexive then I already was. I loved the quote, thank you for sharing it here.

      Teaching the importance of words to students is very important, and I try doing that at every opportunity that arises. I think I am pretty careful with my words, but sometimes it slips ;-) Well, it’s like you said, if we didn’t have a mouth we wouldn’t say things we regreted and wouldn’t learn from them. I sure wouldn’t have written this post. By the way, the student from the story is back at the school I work, after having successfully entered law school (Wow! Getting old here!) and comes after me to give me a hug every class. :-) Big evidence what I did was really what he needed and that he knows I meant well and I cared for him. Phew!

      Thanks for your comments Dara. Hope to keep sharing with you :-)
      Cheers!

      • Dara says:

        Hi! thanks for getting back. I completely agree with you, what is more, we always obtain something good from “bad” things; it seems life, nature, the world seek a balance on themselves, like a ying-yang; we teachwe learn, that’s why this profession is so beautiful to us (among other things) :)

        Also it seems to me when I’m working that I’m on constant “trial and error” and this applies to everything in my day to day.

        Anyway, hope to keep sharing with you too. You have lots to offer, so you are on top of my inspirations’ list for 2011 :D

        Cheers!

        PS: find me on twitter if you wish @dublinro

      • Hi Dara,

        Thank you so much for your lovely, kind comments :-) You made my day! I find so much inspiration from so many people in my PLN, I am glad to have added you to it – yes, I’ve already found you! See you around! :-)

  15. […] article titled, “About Words and Their Power” discusses the huge power teachers’ words can have on their students. As Cecilia Lemos quotes […]

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