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. :-)

An (un)ethical post – Does the end justify the means?

Something that I witnessed made the issue of ethics very present in my conversations and life this week . I watched a person who works in education (Is that enough to make him an educator? I think not.) present / sell his “product”. There’s nothing unethical in this of course. But the way he chose to do it unsettled me – and please consider “unsettle” a euphemism for much stronger feelings I had as I listened – because during his presentation he bashed other institutions that provide the same service he does – English teaching. He did not name any institutions; he generalized, throwing everyone – but his – in the same sack. And I will not be specific as to what he said, but I can assure you it wasn’t nice at all. I was fuming by the end of his presentation.

Everybody (and every institution) has flaws. I actually think flaws can be positive thing – I am full of them, so maybe that’s why I think like that. Flaws are a constant reminder of our humanity. Recognizing our own flaws can lead to learning and development, evolution. Your flaws are part of your personality, part of what make you who you are. And perfection (if there is such a thing) can be very boring. ;-) But if you trust yourself, the quality of your work, of the product you’re selling, you don’t need to bash others to make yourself look good. That’s petty. Wrong. Unnecessary. And extremely unethical. Especially for someone who works in education. After all, we’re the ones teaching people. If being a parent has taught me anything it is that the #1 way people (and especially children and teens) learn is by example, by doing what their role models do. And as educators we are role models. I believe everybody has an obligation to be ethical, but for educators that’s in the job description. I mean, we tell our students to respect others (and others’ work), to not cheat, not plagiarize… We can’t go around doing something else. Do as I say and not as I do? Not for me. The lesson I got from that is that some people don’t hesitate in putting other down to look higher themselves.

You may be asking yourself if I said anything right there on the spot. No, I didn’t. First because I was really angry at that moment and you should avoid doing (especially saying) things while you’re angry. If I had said something right there I probably would’ve said too much, taken by the heat of the moment, and then regretted. And then I could’ve been unethical. Two wrongs do not make a right. But it’s been “brewing”all week, and I thought my newly created blog would be a perfect outlet for my venting. Why are some people like that? How can people not see this is not the way to do things?

I don’t have to say that some other teacher’s practice is bad to make mine good. There’s space for us ALL to teach great classes. That scenario looks much better to me.

Does the end justify the means? Ever? Thinking back at my own practice, do I ever do anything like that? Well, I’m not sure… For instance, there’s a strategy I use to get my students to write essays, to realize that doing them is not the horrible monster they paint. I ask them, through the course of 4 or 5 classes, to write on a topic (usually answering a question about the theme or completing a promtp) for 10 minutes. 10 minutes doesn’t hurt. they’re ok with 10-minute writings. they feel confident, and usually do a good job at it. But I organized those questions and prompts in a way that in the end, after the 4 or 5 10-minute writings are done, I give them back to the students and they can organize those mini-writings into a full essay – with minor adjustments. Each mini-writing is, in essence, a paragraph os a full essay. But I never tell them what will happen when I assign them the mini writings. I am afraid they wouldn’t take it as easily. Does my not telling them from the start – in a way deceiving them into writing a full essay little by little – make it unethical. Because in a way this is a “the end justifies the means”. Isn’t it?

At least I did gain something from the episode. I became more aware of my own behavior, paying attention, trying to find examples of unethical actions… And hopefully it will help me be a better person.

Calvin and Hobbes - Copyright Bill Watterson