How do you make sure your words have power in the classroom? Some statements are a struggle to develop the power to say and truly mean.

When you ask kids at the beginning of the year to make up the rules for a productive classroom (this is not something I’d necessarily recommend doing), they will likely be harsher than you’d ever imagine. They’ll say things like, “You can never talk. If you do, you automatically get a call home.” And on top of that, they’ll add, “If you get out of your seat without permission, you get detention for the rest of the week.” This sounds ridiculous, of course, and even more so when you see all the crazy things the kids will try throughout the year. The point here is that their words (and in some respect, their intentions) do not match their actions. But we forgive them. They’re kids.

The new/young teacher says a lot of things. “In this room, we will respect one another.” “I will not talk over you.” “I will not let you fail.” “Every homework assignment will be graded and returned to you the next day.” Most of us have said these things many times. The question kids are asking—and we need to ask ourselves is—how much power is behind our words?

Sometime last year, a great colleague of mine, Renata Robinson, who taught middle school social studies on my grade team for years, was teaching our students the difference between legal rights and substantive rights. This was in the context of the post Civil War amendments and the subsequent Reconstruction era that attempted to make those laws substantive. She said that kids really grabbed onto this idea when she compared it to school. For example, if a teacher or a school has a “zero tolerance policy for physical harm to another student,” the strength of the policy is revealed when it is tested and the teacher or school either enforces it or doesn’t. Schools are filled with missions, rules, and “non-negotiables” as well as highly critical young people, wired to test boundaries and the validity of our statements.

The intriguing thing is that many veteran teachers rarely have to enforce their rules. Over time by a certain point in their career, they have already fought that battle and won. They’ve enforced said rule enough times that when they utter the words, “You may not harm another person in this room” or “We respect each other here,” kids recognize the power behind these words and believe it’s not worth trying.

I am noticing some behaviors, values, and routines that I don’t have to enforce. For example, my students come to a meeting area every day after the entry routine. I ring a Tibetan meditation bell to signal the transition. A long time ago, I decided (so that the bell would have meaning) that I would only ever ring it to signal a transition to the meeting area. Though I’d be tempted to ring it to get students’ attention, I never did it. After years of using this bell for that one purpose, it is a no-brainer in my classroom. I don’t have to fight it. I’m never tempted to overuse it. It is not questioned or tested. It has that power. There are also certain words that may not be used in my classroom. I’ve already fought the battles over them in past years. Kids just accept it at this point, even though I didn’t fight the battles with them. It’s as if the experience just oozes through.

There are other statements I’m still struggling to develop the power to say and truly mean. “You must raise your hand to be called on” is one of them. I can’t quite win that battle because at some point, I’m always inclined to accept a comment offered by a student who calls out. Maybe I should just change the rule. Maybe I should just deal with my own inconsistency and my students’ response to it. Or perhaps, I should just become a stickler for it even though I find it difficult.

In my last post, I discussed the idea that a teacher comes to understand, “It’s not about me,” in stages as the career progresses. Establishing the power of our words takes years too. New teachers are warned not to promise students things they can’t deliver. In reality, we all will make this mistake at times—there are mess-ups and legitimately confusing issues along the way. I’m pretty sure that the more experienced we get, the more we’re able to match our words and our actions. This is also something we model for students and something they need to build consciousness around.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you remember a time when this crystalized for you? How do you make sure your words have power in the classroom?


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