What we say to our students

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what we say to our students, and what that says about us.

I’ve spent a good deal of this year encouraging Year 11, as a cohort, in assemblies, classrooms and corridors. But it occurred to me recently that they might not see my words as “encouragement.”

John Tomsett’s excellent blog here made me wonder how year 11 heard me. Did they hear my words as encouraging – “we’re putting on extra revision sessions for you”, “we’re looking at your coursework and we want to help you improve it”, “your speaking and listening exams are over the next couple of months” – or was I actually berating them?

All year, teachers and SLT have reported that the year 11s are feeling “stressed.” For most of the year, I was fairly dismissive of this – after all, it’s year 11. It’s not going to be a cakewalk. They just needed to work harder.

This week, like all weeks, I looked at the data. Instead of being terrified about the 35 or so students who aren’t on track, I decided to look in a “glass half full” manner this term. John Tomsett in the post above wisely says:

“It’s pointless berating Year 11 at this stage, just love them instead. The die is largely cast by now and what they attain in their GCSEs this summer will not be improved by relentlessly getting on their case. Make them feel special and trusted and they might just find a little more enthusiasm for their revision over the next couple of weeks.”

I’ve tried to take this to heart.  Each time I’ve spoken to the year group this term, I have emphasized how positive their position is. On Friday, after a long few weeks of moderation, I told the year group something along these lines: “I’ve looked at all your coursework. It’s brilliant. I’ve looked at your speaking and listening exam results. They’re brilliant. You don’t need to do anything different to achieve amazing grades – just keep doing what you’re doing.” Before, I wanted them to be afraid. I now wonder if this is counter-productive, and has actually made them reject work.

And it’s not just year 11. Students come to school with all kinds of preconceptions; the number this year who have referred me to the received wisdom that “some people are just naturally smart” has made me feel incredibly depressed. I’ve worked hard with my own classes to emphasise effort; one of my happiest moments this year came at an Easter revision session (where targeted students across the year group were invited) when one of my students replied to a student who said the above aphorism by finishing my sentence: “It’s not how smart you are-” “It’s how hard you work!” I’ve had a year 7 say she doesn’t try because she “always gets it wrong”; trying to explain that failing is learning is taking time, but it is valuable to have that conversation every time, I think.

Of course, the caveats placed on “teacher talk” can seem endlessly numerous: never say: “brilliant!” without qualifying your praise; never talk about “work” (it is “learning”); never say a child is a level (they are “working at level…”); say thank you instead of please to encourage compliance with instructions…

I automatically bristle at such rules. They seem to discount the fact that students and teachers are people, who use language to communicate. The over-analysis of tiny words seems like mindless minutiae.

But then there are the students who pick up on our un-thought-out words. In my first year as a teacher, it was not long before I was met with the phrase familiar to all teachers: “you hate me, don’t you?”

Now, I’m one of these method-actor teachers. I’m an open book, and find it impossible to lie or fake an emotion or response. I have to love all students, because if I didn’t, I just couldn’t teach them. I’m also of the firm belief that all children have something lovable in them; something great – if only great potential. So I could face the student in question and quite honestly tell her: “of course I don’t hate you.”

We’re an emotionally oppressed profession, because we can’t tell students we love them, even though we do, and even though we freely tell our friends (every teacher I know has used the L-word about their students).

I know a teacher who bends over backwards for her class; who is in school before 7am and out of school after 6pm; who comes in on Saturdays to work with almost many of her targeted students. And yet one of her students, who I also teach and about whom we have frequent chats of our concerns, believes this teacher hates her. Nothing could be further from the truth. I won’t pretend every teacher loves every single student, but I don’t believe any teacher truly hates any student.

So, above all, I think we have to communicate that love to our students. In short, my resolution for this term, the most difficult term, is to strive to communicate the love I have for my students to my students. Let none say: “Ms Facer hates me.” I don’t. I really, really don’t.

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One thought on “What we say to our students

  1. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Reading all the Books

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