Changing the Way We Talk To And About Our Students

Sometimes I come home and think:

“Today was a fight.”

“It was a battle.”

“I had to really put the gloves on today.”

Or, I’ll say to my students:

“You guys are killing me today!”

“You have to sit down now.”

“If you do not follow directives, I’ll have to call ________.”

“Don’t talk during the quiz/test/journal write.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching students with Oppositional Defiant behavior, it’s that the old sayings “kill ’em with kindness” and “you catch flies better with honey than vinegar” definitely apply to classroom management. And I definitely inherited this nagging, as well as negative war-like metaphors, from various other educators and people. I know this because nagging’s not really me, but I tend to resort to it in stress-like situations. You always fall back on what seems the most natural to you, and old habits that you learned from others because they seemed like viable options at one point.

As someone who does teach some of the most difficult yet brilliant students, let me tell you this:

The negativity, the accusation, not giving them the benefit of the doubt, and fighting will never bring out their best—not their best work, not their best behavior, and definitely not their best thinking. I felt like I messed up this week because two students walked into my class unannounced and looked confused and loopy, and I thought they were high. I called the office and it turned out they weren’t high, they were just wandering around. At that moment I could tell my rapport was damaged just a little bit with them because I made an accusation that was incorrect. It’s going to take some time to build that rapport back up.

Praise for what they do well, affirmation for when they’re struggling, person-first language, giving the benefit of the doubt, positive language (eliminating “do nots” from your directives), and constantly telling them why you enjoy teaching them (even when sometimes you don’t like it) will bring out their best in everything they do. It will create a culture of positive success in your classroom, and hopefully that will extend into the school culture if you’re a good leader. The key to teaching is not to stuff their heads full of knowledge, but to lead them in uncovering their strengths and identifying their areas for growth.

It’s not a silver bullet, it’s just downright respect—and that’s key for working with students who often mistrust just about any educator because of the bad ones they’ve had before. They mistrust them, of course, because they’ve never really been given a chance to be successful.

Give your students a chance to be successful. Take good risks with them. Don’t take their behavior personally, and never hold a grudge. At the end of the day, when they walk out the door, give them a high five, hand shake, fist bump, the awkward-but-appropriate side hug, and tell them you’ll see them tomorrow. I promise that if they know that, they’re going to see your classroom as a positive place they want to be. Only when that happens can real learning take place.

-S

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