Words that Teachers Use

It’s far too easy to fall into the habit of criticizing children (or anybody for that matter). But, the words we use are weapons, are acts of violence. Although they may “just” be words at first, they begin to promote patterns of actions that heighten the intensity of our judgments about children.

To say that a child is bad, stupid, incapable, or whatever is an act of violence that can affect that child for the rest of his or her life. For me, teachers said I couldn’t sing and threw me out of the school chorus. They said I couldn’t play the melody flutes they had distributed to all children, then took back the one they had given me. That 60 years ago. It may be one of my strongest memories from elementary school. And, these words and actions did lasting damage. I still struggle with singing… even with “happy birthday.” I have tried to learn instruments, but that too is a struggle.

For those of us who work with children, we may have an immediate gut reaction to a child and think about how we don’t like him or her. What do we do when we have such thoughts? The first thing that we should NOT do is sweep the thought under the carpet or ignore it. We must start by acknowledging it. Then, we can say to ourselves, “I’m not going to believe that thought.” After this we need to make a concerted effort to empathize with the child, to try to imagine being that child. Ask about what the child is experiencing in school, at home, in the neighborhood, and so forth. Spend time imagining you are that child. This is an important step in the development of compassion, which is really trying to tap into the shared humanity, the shared experiences.

Relationships are, for just about every living thing, an essential ingredient to living and survival. But, humans seem to be rather bad at developing good relationships. It seems that we screw up many more relationships than we establish on good terms. For children, they are just beginning to negotiate their way through the complexity of human relationships. They haven’t even had a chance to develop some of the important skills for developing and maintaining relationships. And, a couple of those skills are empathy and compassion.

Avoid judging, but try to understand.

Avoid reacting, just be present with the child. Our tendency as teachers is to react and control a situation. If you can’t think of a skillful action that does not “harm” the child or “harm” the relationship you are trying to build, then just do nothing, just wait. Time is on your side.

Remember that building relationships with children is much more important than anything else you do. Relationships are more important than test scores, more important than teacher evaluations, more important than covering curriculum content.

The “bad” children you inherit in classrooms are the results of broken relationships. Children look for encouragement, love, and respect. But, they are often met with discouragement, animosity, and disrespect. Children are often not appreciated for who they are as unique individuals, and feel pressured to conform to some standardized personality.

As teachers, we must work with our own patterns of thinking and reactions so that we can be more open to the inherent qualities of the children. We need to drop our storylines and rationalizations and not believe everything we think. Then, we need to start empathizing with the children. And, as we progress through our understanding of each child, we can begin to help all children work with developing and maintaining relationships in the classroom. But, you, as the model and mentor, must set the example of how to work with relationships.

Such an approach is transformative. It transforms you, the teacher. It transforms the children. It transforms the classroom into a collaboratively run community. And, it sets the groundwork for transforming society. Imagine if all children came out of school with this kind of background in relationships.

About Jeff Bloom

I’m a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.

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