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Improving Teacher Communication: Aligning Language with Intentions

At the end of my first year of teaching, I wanted some feedback from my fourth graders about my teaching. So, I created a report card for students to fill out for me and encouraged them to give me honest feedback.

There was a section for comments, and for the most part, they were very positive. One, though, caught me off guard. Jenna was a thoughtful and spunky student with whom I thought I shared great rapport. I was crushed when she wrote something about how I had hurt her feelings sometimes during the year.

What? Jenna?” I thought, “How could that be? We’re always joking around and teasing!” I thanked Jenna for her feedback and asked her to help me understand. I apologized and let her know I never meant to hurt her feelings. “I know you didn’t, Mr. A.,” Jenna sighed. “I just couldn’t always tell when you were joking and when you were serious.” It was a powerful lesson for me—one that I felt like I should have known already. The playful, nuanced teasing and joking I did with nine and ten year-olds was intended to build rapport and strengthen relationships, but I realized that it wasn’t always received the way I intended.

This was the first time I remember being conscious of how the way I talked with students didn’t always match my goals for them, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

For the past 25 years, first as a classroom teacher and then as a consultant, I’ve been thinking deeply about, and working with other educators on, this basic idea.

We all end up in a place where our language habits don’t match our good intentions for our students. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • We intend to craft a safe and supportive community, but we slide into sarcasm and snarkiness when frustrated. How many times do I have to remind you to clean up your science supplies? Do I look like your personal servant?!
  • We want our students to be strong and independent, but we feed them a steady diet of teacher-pleasing praise which trains them to seek our approval. I love the way you’re adding so much detail to your story!
  • We want students to love learning, but we send subtle messages that schoolwork isn’t fun. If you work hard and finish this task, we’ll do something fun at the end of class.
  • We want our students to engage in positive behavior, and to do so because it’s the right thing to do, but we accidentally send the message that kids should be good to get a prize. If you work well in your reading groups, we’ll get another sticker on our chart. We’re close to getting our pizza party!

These are just a few examples of some of the most common ways that educators’ best intentions for students aren’t reflected in our language. Chances are, you can think of some of your own examples. In fact, you’re probably already vaguely aware of a language habit you have that doesn’t quite feel right. So, what can you do?

If you’re looking for strategies to talk with children in ways that will boost engagement, support positive behavior, build safe learning communities, strengthen student agency, support growth mindsets, and meet other positive goals we have for our students, here are a few ideas to try.

    1. Set a good goal. What’s something about your language you would like to shift? How might this shift benefit your students?
      Example: I’d like to move away from using the teacher-pleasing language of “I like the way you…” when I offer feedback to students. This will help boost their sense of independence and help them think for themselves.
    2. Plan concrete strategies. What is a simple strategy to help you make this shift? Would it help to audio-record yourself as you teach to help raise your awareness of your language habits? Do you have a colleague who could observe you and offer supportive feedback? Would it help to create a t-chart—unwanted language on the left and replacement language on the right (see below)?
      Instead of…Try…
      I like the way you’re trying multiple strategies to solve that problem.You’re trying multiple strategies to solve that problem. That should help you learn a lot.
      I love how you’re helping each other out as a group.You’re showing real teamwork by working together as a group.
    3. Practice—a lot. It takes a while to shift habits. Be patient with yourself as you practice and solidify your new language pattern. You’ll need to be hyper-conscious of your new language at first, but as your new habit develops, it will become more automatic.

Too often, we end up in language habits that undermine our vision of the ideal learning environments we’re trying to create. As your teacher talk becomes better aligned with your best intentions, you’ll see your classroom environment shifting. Depending on your goals, you may see your students becoming more confident and independent, or enjoying learning and becoming more motivated. They may be more collaborative and respectful of each other and more able to think and act responsibly.

There’s no doubt that this isn’t easy—changing language habits is hard work, but it’s worth it.

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Mike AndersonMike Anderson has been an educator for more than 25 years. He spent 15 years as a elementary school teacher and has also taught preschool and university graduate level classes. He spent many years as a presenter, consultant, author, and developer for the Northeast Foundation for Children, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping create safe, joyful, and challenging classrooms and schools. In 2004, Anderson received a national Milken Educator Award and in 2005 he was a finalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year. Now, as an education consultant, Anderson works with schools in rural, urban, and suburban settings. He is the author of several books including What We Say and How We Say It Matter: Teacher Talk that Improves Student Learning and Behavior (ASCD, 2019).