My boys have always looked at me very strangely when I've told them that "words have power." When they were younger I know they often have thought I was silly. "Words are just words, Mom." But I know that now, as they are older, they are grasping what I have meant all of these years. They will tell you that I patiently INSIST that in our family, we will Do No Harm, and that we will treat each other with respect. For some reason young siblings often feel they can treat their siblings as second class citizens, especially in the way they talk to each other. My boys will tell you that I have NEVER tolerated that. I tell them that there are plenty of people in the world who might criticize them or worse, and that it WILL NOT begin within our family. I work hard at keeping respect and every person's right to be who they are, front and center in our family. My boys are starting to understand that more and more, and my heart is happy these days as I see them inviting each other into their activities and circles lately. Truly happy.
School has the potential to play a vital role in a student's agency and identity. In an ideal world, our students would get all that they need to flesh out their identity and sense of agency at home. School would be the icing on the cake of agency and identity. But we all know that not all homes have the capacity to help build positive identity and agency. We also know that the social realm offers things to our identities and our sense of agency that even our families can't offer. A student's experience in school can do much to validate (or hinder) a student's sense of identity and agency. A mentor's encouraging words, a fellow student's compliment or advice, the ability to grow trust between oneself and another human being outside of the family- all of these things have the potential to produce amazing self-awareness and a knowing of who one truly is. Many times we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others to experience that kind of affirmative validation.
I am personally a VERY sensitive and empathic person, so I am very aware of my words and how they can potentially affect others. That doesn't mean that I don't slip up sometimes and say the wrong things, but I have a highly-attuned word radar most times, whether I am talking with my child, my spouse, my parents, friends, colleagues, or students. I have been teaching for a long time though, and I know many teachers who aren't aware of how their words affect others. I have experienced times where a student has walked into a room and heard a teacher saying very unkind things regarding that student's abilities and intelligence- in a very insulting, and even mocking, manner. Those times are even painful for me to remember, as I spent time comforting those students. The difficult part of that, is that as teachers, we have a responsibility. As teachers we hold vulnerable portions of students in our presence. Students look up to us. They trust us. They hope we see the good in them, they hope we believe in them, and they hope we see their talents. They may never tell us that, but deep down they hope that. And for a student to walk in unexpectedly and hear their teacher talking that way about them... well, there are no words to describe the look that crosses their faces. It hurts them immeasurably. So, Yes, school potentially plays a vital role in a student's identity and agency.
As a school leader (whether in title or simply in action) I definitely believe it in my sphere of influence to demonstrate and encourage Choice Words on our campus and anywhere within our school district. I think there are many things I could do on my school campus that would help to create a culture of using Choice Words. I could seek to make Choice Words a pillar on our campus so that as an entire school we could address it - teachers and students alike. If I wanted to just begin with the staff, I could imagine dedicating part of a staff meeting to the concept of Choice Words. I would begin with a video that would create impact, and let that flow into discussions about the power of words, and our care, as teachers, in using them carefully. Probably the most powerful thing I could do, though, is to overtly and constantly model Choice Words in my everyday practice.
Some things I can commit to doing this semester that will make my school choose words wisely:
1. I will model Choice Words as I talk with colleagues, students, and parents.
2. I will overtly talk about Mindset with students. For example, when they say, "I'm not good at writing essays." I will help them re-word that sentence to let them know that their writing abilities are a work in progress on the road to becoming spectacular- even if they'll only accept the word "yet" on the end of their original sentence.
3. I will add an assignment into my class that deals with the concept of mindset so that students can read a bit more about it- and about the power of words- and write about it as well. Then I can share that with my colleagues so that we talk about the topic.
4. I will add Choice Words to a high school advisory topic this semester - including a video, peer discussions, and personal writing. I will approach the K-8 teachers with the idea of teaching the concept of Choice Words and having students create Choice Words posters to post around school.
5. When I hear "un-choice" words between students on campus I will step in in a friendly way to assist in putting a positive spin on the situation with Choice Words, and helping the students do the same.