Teacher Words can Inspire
Teachers can have a huge positive influence on their students. By encouraging a struggling student and showing them how they can in fact achieve more than they think, they can change a student’s career from one of failure to success. A perfect example of this happened in my niece’s life. She had moved near me from up north and was going into ninth grade. She struggled through most of her first semester of ninth grade, making some D’s and F’s. However, she had one teacher who saw that she was really smart and just needed some extra help. What was amazing was that he only spoke to her one time. As he explained, the difference between an F and a C would really just be a small amount of effort on her part. He promised that if she only spent fifteen minutes a day on homework and studying she would see a huge improvement. Most importantly, he told her that he knew she could do it. And she could tell he was sincere – he really believed it. It was like a light was switched on. She became a straight A student and to this day loves learning and reading.
Teacher Words Can Cause Harm
Just as we can think of teachers from our past who inspired us, many of us can remember teachers who made comments that subtly discouraged us and some even had the unfortunate experience of having teachers who were outright hostile or vindictive. As a teacher, it seems that everyone has a “teacher” story and I have more than a few friends and family who have told me about some teacher or other who would never be able to learn a topic or succeed in some way.
Sometimes teachers make subtle comments that they might even mean to be positive but still hurt. For example, one of my best friends in school was in the AP classes. She always made B’s, never stood out in class. However, when she took her AP English test, she made a 5, the best possible score. She also made 4’s on two other AP exams. When she came back to school after the summer, one of her teachers saw her in the hall and told her how shocked she was that she had gotten that grade. She even said that she had underestimated her. While at first my friend was happy to have the praise, when she told me about it later she was annoyed that her teacher didn’t see that she was working hard and really good at the course. I called her when I was writing the article to see what she thought about it now and she said that it still feels hurtful when she thinks about it. I’m sure this teacher meant nothing about it, she was speaking what she truly believed.
As a personal example, I was never encouraged as a writer in school. Part of this had to do with my handwriting, I know. I am a leftie and never really got the hang of neat writing. Once I started typing in college, my grades and comments got better. Nonetheless, I always felt that others got better grades than me and I never understood why. Teacher comments were always about grammar or other mechanical errors. However, while grammar might have been part of the grade given, most of it was based on the subjectivity of the teacher. And I can’t remember ever getting any advice to improve my grades for my teachers from their subjective points of view. To this day, this still causes many problems for me. I love to write. I’ve written a few published non-fiction books, and like most writers I have a few partly finished and one completely finished novel. Yet I’m so afraid of failure. I still hear my teachers voice in my ears. Now it says, “Sure, you’re writing has gotten better. Your spelling and grammar has improved. However, I just think that you need to work a little harder.” And in my mind this means, “You’ll never succeed at writing so why try?” I fight against it everyday.
Finally, we sometimes make comments that seem to be completely innocuous but if we only knew how the students in our classes see the comments from their end, we would choose to speak differently. As an example, I had a student who was in my twelfth grade class. She was a beautiful, sweet girl. One day at the end of the school year, we were chatting about the teachers she had throughout her school career. One of the other kids was saying that they loved this particular middle school teacher. However, she said that he really upset her. She even remembered the lesson. They were talking about the barter system. He was giving each student a role. One was a farmer and the other was the farmer’s wheat. The farmer moved the farmer’s wheat over to another farmer who then traded his donkey to the farmer. Well, the girl was the farmer’s “donkey.” She didn’t realize that he was just picking kids at random and giving the roles. She always felt that he had picked her as a donkey because she was overweight or ugly or something. Wow. I was floored.
Hopefully, after reading this article you can see that our words really do stick with our students for their whole life. I know that I have tried to be more careful with what I say each day. I’m not perfect, but I hope that I am more thoughtful and less damaging to my students in the long run.