I am obsessed with words – a fact that both informed my decision to become a high school English teacher, and exacerbated by my decision to become a high school English teacher. Being obsessed with words is a trait only slightly less annoying than being obsessed with grammar (which I am not especially, though I will instinctively correct anyone who uses “less” where they should use “fewer”) and is a trait that manifests itself in countless ways in my classroom. I am forever urging my students toward greater precision in their language, chased by the fear of George Orwell’s ominous prediction: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” However, it is not only our students who need that urging – it is we, too, their teachers, who need to be constantly reminded of the power of the words we use.
Every day, five times a day, I greet my students in basically the same way: “Good morning, friends!” The only variation is in “morning,” which twice a day becomes “afternoon” and once, much to their amusement, becomes “almost afternoon.” That I refer to them as “friends” is not an accident, and it’s not a joke – it’s one of any number of intentional choices that I make when I speak to them. My students are in high school, and my classes are discussion-based. We talk about big stuff, whether we’re reading an essay in my AP Language & Composition course, or a novel in my American literature course, or the front page of the New York Times in journalism. I need them to be comfortable with me and with each other, and so I call them “my friends.”
What I never call my students is “children” – not to them at least, and only occasionally when I’m talking about them. They’re “children” only when the adult that I’m talking to needs reminding that high school students may sometimes seem like adults, but are in fact adolescents.
What I also call my students is “writers,” because that’s what we do: we write. Writers don’t “submit” papers or “turn them in,” they “publish” them, and so that’s what we do in my classroom, too. We revise and edit together, we work through the messy writing process together, and then we publish together. Always “publish,” always “we,” always “together,” because that’s how real writing gets done.
What I never refer to is “the real world” as some place that exists outside or beyond high school. When we slow down – we, their teachers – to examine our language, we realize that in talking to our students about “the real world” as not high school we are invalidating all of the work that that they, and we, are doing everyday.
What I insist my student’s say is “earned” – they “earned” that A just like they “earned” that B.
What they never say is “got” – because when students “get” grades, they are victims. When they “earn” grades, they have agency. Instead of being acted upon, they are actors; instead of having school happen to them, they are essential participants in their learning.
When my students – my friends – leave my classroom, I encourage them to have a good day, and I use their names. Nearly every student gets an individual farewell, and while a couple of my classes are small, most of them are large, and it is worth the time. Using someone’s name, particularly when there are twenty-two other equally individual people around you representing twenty-two other possible names you could hear, communicates care and interest. I care about my students and I am interested in them – it is important that they know that, and one of the ways they know it is when I use their names.
New and pre-service teachers are given a ton of advice on classroom management, but what makes a teacher great instead of just good is having a strong, positive classroom culture. Culture is built in so many different ways, but one of the main things that underlies a strong culture is strong trust, and one of the ways that we encourage students to trust us is in the way that we speak to them. Precision in our language matters – it builds trust, but it can also build self-esteem in our students. When students feel good about themselves, they learn better and they learn more. When students feel good about themselves, it means that we are doing our jobs as teachers.
Consider, then, challenging yourself in the following way: What are three language shifts that you can make today, and that you can adhere to every day, that will help you build a stronger classroom culture? Those three small changes will not only make your students’ lives better, but yours as well.
Shari Krapels is a high school English teacher in New Jersey, and a member of ASCD’s Emerging Leaders Class of 2017. Connect with Shari on Twitter at @mrs_krapels.