Teacher Language Becomes Focus of Professional Learning in Fletcher

Target – Leadership in a Student-Centered Learning Environment. FWSU will foster development of teacher and student leaders who provide innovative opportunities for local and global student-centered learning.

Action Step – Develop learning habits, communication and problem-solving skills necessary for collaborative learning and leadership.

Indicator of Success – Teachers embrace the role of coach, facilitator and co-learner in a student-centered learning environment.

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In an instant, a teacher’s language – the things we do or do not say, the unspoken messages beneath the words, and the manner in which we deliver our thoughts – can, at best, ignite a spark in children that creates a lifelong love of learning and models strong, positive social skills. At its worst, poorly planned and executed teacher language can devastate a student’s self-esteem, cause them to disconnect from school and overpower their ability to reach their full potential.

The term “teacher,” in this context, applies to any adult who interacts with children – from kitchen staff and bus drivers to para-educators, custodians, office staff and, of course, classroom and other professionals. Parents, too, are important teachers of their children. Each and every adult interacting with a child has an equal responsibility and opportunity use language that supports them in being at their social and academic best.

In Fletcher, all faculty and staff members have recently completed an intensive six-week study of the importance of teacher language using the Responsive Classroom book, The Power of Our Words (Northeast Foundation for Children, 2014). Outlined in the book are five basic guidelines for teacher language. These guiding principles become the overarching philosophy for daily interactions with children and remind the adults in school of the importance of approaching teacher language with mindfulness and purpose.

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Be direct and authentic:  In being direct and authentic, students learn that the adults say what they mean and mean what they say. This creates a trusting relationship that allows students to take risks in their learning throughout the day. Using an even, matter of fact tone of voice conveys a sense of confidence in children and creates safety in the classroom. Teachers need to be aware of the unspoken messages that their body language conveys to students.

Convey faith in children’s abilities and intentions: Teacher language shapes students’ perceptions of themselves and others. When our language conveys positive assumptions and high expectations, it will help students to form similar views of themselves. It is essential that teachers notice the positives in all students.

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Focus on action: Adult language contains many abstract terms. Phrases such as, “be respectful” or, “be safe” may be confusing in isolation. It is important for teachers to connect abstract terms with concrete behaviors. For example, a teacher might say, “Please be safe by walking in the hallway.” This language connects the abstract term with a specific and understandable behavior that is taught. Focusing on the action also helps children separate their behaviors from who they are as a person.

Keep it brief: Long explanations and lectures are often counterproductive for young children. Particularly when they are upset, students tend to hear nothing more than a jumble of words. Keeping your thoughts brief makes it more likely that the child will understand what is being said. In brief, children often understand more when we speak less.

Know when to be silent: Silence provides children time to think, gather their thoughts and gain the courage to speak. The use of “wait time” encourages children to be problem-solvers and thinkers, rather than students who simply wait to be spoon-fed the answer. Silence also allows others the opportunity to speak as part of a cordial and respectful conversation.

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In addition to the guiding principles of teacher language, The Power of Our Words outlines a variety of types of language used by adults. Envisioning language is used to help students imagine themselves behaving and achieving in ways beyond their current reality. It helps children to form a vision of themselves being successful. Open-ended questions are another type of teacher language. They have no single right or wrong answer. Rather, any reasoned and relevant response is acceptable. Open-ended questions allow students at a variety of academic and social levels to participate in a conversation and to respond appropriately. They also allow teachers to gain a sense of students’ knowledge in a given area.

During staff meetings, the adults at Fletcher participated in activities that aligned the guiding principles of teacher language with the specific language types. Then, they applied this work to their day-to-day interactions with students. In addition to language, however, the group also discussed the importance of listening as a powerful tool in understanding students. Listening is far more than silently receiving someone’s words. It is also about searching for the speaker’s intended meaning (i.e. the child that yells, “I hate you!” may in fact mean something completely different and be reacting out of frustration.)

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Statements that affirm the positive behaviors of students are called reinforcing language. They support children in building on their strengths. When adults notice and name what children are doing well, the children are more likely to continue doing it. This is true of both social and academic skills. Similarly, just as reminders (like the one in my calendar to write this blog!) keep us all on track in our daily lives, reminding language offers valuable support to students as they go about their daily lives as school. At school, reminders are used to prompt students to remember a rule or answer. They are typically phrased in the form of a question (i.e. “What is the rule about how we move in the hall?”) Since children are not simply given the answer, they learn that they are expected to truly know the rule and act accordingly.

Redirecting language is literally used to change a child’s direction. It is used when a child is being unsafe to self or others, when they are too emotional to remember expectations, or otherwise so far off track that they cannot regroup. They are brief, respectful statements that tell the child what they need to do (i.e. “Stop and walk.”)

Any adult who spends time with children has the responsibility and opportunity to use skillful language to engage, inspire and support their social and academic learning. The adults at Fletcher will continue their refinement of teacher language in an effort to best serve students. Read more about teacher language here.

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