Building Peace: Choosing Our Words

This post was initially supposed to be about mental health in the classroom because of a PD from this week. However, I was sidetracked by a conversation I overheard on the train on the way to the  café where I am now. (If you clicked on the link and are imagining the delectable smell of cinnamon rugelach, you’re right here with me.)

As a result, I’ve reframed this post as a discussion about the power of language with a specific focus on how we talk to children and to students in our classrooms.

The Conversation
I don’t always eavesdrop on the people on either side of me on the subway platform, but I generally start to pay attention when I hear the voices of very young children. That’s mostly because I think they’re adorable but also because I’m curious about parenting. My mother is an early childhood educator and has always maintained a running commentary on how people dress, talk to, and generally treat their children in public. Though I am not a parent myself but really hope to be someday, my mother’s ideas have influenced my opinions on parents and parenting. As an educator, I know that deliberate language makes a huge difference in many activities that take place in the classroom, including the formation of relationships between teachers and students.

The conversation I overheard just a few minutes ago reminded me how important it is for parents to also be cognizant of how they talk to their children and what they say when their children are around. I wasn’t paying attention until the little girl in a tutu and ballet bun tried to break into her parents’ heated discussion. I caught phrases like “if we have a boy” and “you can’t just save all that money” and “she also wants to have a career”. The child tried three times before being able to complete a sentence, stopping herself when neither parent glanced at her as they continued speaking. When her parents finally paused, the little girl announced, “Yeah, Dad, and you don’t do nothing with me!”

Both ignored her. The train arrived and all three squeezed inside.

The non-interaction made my heart hurt.

How We Talk
Two things in particular stood out to me regarding the parents’ dismissal of their child and what the child had actually said:

  1. Need for acknowledgement. When a child clearly wants to speak, the adults in discussion need to acknowledge the child’s desire to participate and let the child know when it is an appropriate time to do so. We want our children and students to be able to engage in dialogue, a true back-and-forth exchange of ideas and opinions. We want them to develop autonomy, agency, and a sense of empowerment in their ability to express themselves. If we ever expect them to talk, we need to listen when they’re ready. This happens constantly in the classroom when students want their voices heard. I can’t try to count the number of times I have said something like, “Hold on, someone else is talking now” and then followed up with, “Okay, what would you like to add?” when the other student had finished. I remember my parents telling us, “Mummy and Daddy are talking right now and in one minute you can say something. Please wait.” Acknowledging that children want to speak and then helping them determine when to do so is essential if we truly want to listen to and interact with one another in any capacity.
  2. Awareness of surroundings. Regardless of what her parents were arguing over, I know that this girl had heard too much. She was probably around four years old and clearly parroting what she’d been told about her father or what she’d overheard others say. I expect she’d heard her parents engage in a similar exchange more than once before since she was so intent on this particular phrase. “You don’t do nothing with me.” Does she even know what it means? She very happily grabbed her dad’s hand as they boarded the train, so I suspect not. When we speak, we are modeling behavior. If we want our children to grow into respectful young people and ultimately respectful adults who care about those around them, we need to model respectful language. Students hear the words that we use and absorb them. We send messages that we don’t realize we’re sending. Certain words and phrases stand out more than others and we don’t necessarily know what children will latch onto. Young people hear a lot and interpret what they hear. If we want to cultivate certain ideas over others, we need to be careful that it is those ideas we express when we’re speaking.

Why It Matters
Actions and words create environments and expectations. This is true at school, at home, and in the workplace. In the heat of the moment, that’s easy to forget. We all make mistakes and we all say things that should be left unsaid. From a pedagogical perspective, I try to be very aware of what I say and do in order to create a classroom environment where students feel accepted, validated, safe, and important. I make choices about the words I use, ideas I express, how I deal with challenges, and how I interact with students in order to create that classroom environment and culture. I can’t expect my students to act a certain way if I don’t explicitly show them what that is and insist that they engage that way with each other.

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

We all know that words matter. A lot. In each of our interactions, we need to remember that the connection we form with others does not disappear when we stop talking and part ways. I don’t always know what the people around me take away from the time we’ve spent together, but I do know what I take away. Young people are constantly learning from example, which is why I urge mindfulness in all interaction, verbal and nonverbal. If I want my students to work to construct a better, more peaceful world I have to work on that with them at a micro level before I can expect them to do that on a global scale.

The conversation I overheard on the subway platform is also relevant in terms of a really excellent presentation from PD this week about dealing with mental health issues in the classroom. I have always been interested in mental health and I’ve taught psychology in the past so little in this presentation was new in itself, but it was refreshing to attend a PD session focused on supporting students with mental health issues.

We don’t talk about mental health often enough. I’ve been trying to raise awareness about educational issues lately, which is why I want to share some thoughts on mental health in the classroom and a resource the presenters introduced that I find very useful.

The Numbers
Most of us are experts at pretending we’re okay when we’re not. When’s the last time someone asked, “How are you?” and you actually answered the question instead of providing the cursory, “Finethankyouhowareyou?” response? Society has decided that we’d rather delude ourselves than actually see the people around us.

This is a problem because many people are not fine at all. In 2014 alone, one in five American adults experienced some kind of mental health issue. It’s also a problem with young people. There has been increasing research about the number of adolescents who are struggling with mental health issues. Suicide rates are the third leading cause of death in young adults ages 15-24, and 90% of those who committed suicide struggled with mental health problems. Being able to talk about openly about mental health is a step in the right direction towards an emphasis on greater well-being for all.

The Need to Talk
Stigma is a huge problem when addressing mental illness. As noted above, we have decided that we are all “fine”. Many people would probably be taken aback if a polite, “How are you?” was followed up with, “I haven’t slept in three months, my appetite is gone, I have almost constant headaches, and I can’t stop thinking about my parents dying in a car accident. How are you?”

The simplest thing for a concerned educator to do is to make mental health awareness part of the classroom community. Teachers are in a position to indicate to students that it is okay for them to feel anything they’re feeling. It is okay for them to ask for help. Many schools have already developed (yay!) a culture around safe spaces for LGBTQ students and we are beginning to do the same for students with mental health concerns. Students need to know that they do not have to be okay all the time. They need to know that mental illness is a very real part of being human. Look at the numbers. We hide it when we avoid talking about it, but it’s more than common.

The clinicians and researchers who ran the PD session provided this website that they have developed as part of their work. This is the first time I’m sharing a teacher resource on this blog and I’m doing it because I think it is so important to allow mental health to be a very real part of classroom dialogue. My AP Psych teacher in high school said that society will have come a long way once we decide it’s as necessary to seek medical help for mental illness as it is for a broken arm. That was 2008. We talk more now than we did then, but it’s still not enough.

From Talk to Action
Let me preface this by saying that I am not trained to treat anyone for anything. That’s not my job. My job is to get to know my students so that I know when something is not right. My job is also to provide a safe space for students who want to talk, have questions or concerns, or need somewhere accepting to go during the day. The language I use, behaviors I model, topics I discuss, and the ways in which I interact with my students are very powerful in shaping relationships. There is the necessity of congruence in what I believe, what I claim to want for my students, and how I show that to them.

As I’ve written before and linked above, I believe that peacebuilding is the goal of education. That means purposefully developing real connections with one another, working towards increased well-being for all, and creating a culture in which we are caring and compassionate towards each other. The language that we use goes a long way in promoting this overall aim. With a new school year either very fresh or about to begin, I urge all educators to think about the messages they want to send and they way they go about doing that. Our students deserve a better, more peaceful world. Together, we can build that.

In addition to my educational interests, I am always intrigued about the way language has changed over time. One of my favorite papers in graduate school had me researching the clinical uses of words like “moron” and “idiot”. The next book on my ever-growing To Read list, How Happy Became Homosexual, will likely address some of my curiosities but I’m eager for your thoughts!

Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear about the use of language in your classroom/workplace/any area of your life (always aiming for inclusivity here), any educational resources you have about mental health, or your thoughts on/experiences with parenting. Really, I’d like to hear about anything you want to say. I love learning. Thanks for reading!

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