The Commission on the Whole Child (2007) emphasized the importance of educators focusing on the whole child in order to assist all children to "develop all of their gifts and realize their full potential" (p. 7), rather than working solely on academic achievement. The commission suggested:
Through interactions with responsive, respectful adults— regardless of their role within a child's life—children learn to imitate, and then internalize, valued social, physical, cognitive, or ethical behaviors. When children believe that the adults around them care about who they are and what they know and what they can do, they are more likely to respond to what those adults value and take those values as their own. (p. 16)
As Gene R. Carter, executive director for ASCD, asked, "If the student were truly at the center of the system, what could we achieve?" (Commission on the Whole Child, 2007, p. 4).
Stories abound of students who succeeded against all odds because teachers or other adults believed in them and expressed that belief both verbally and nonverbally. On the other hand, the news is also filled with stories of adults and children who expressed their anger with violence because they were not affirmed or spoken kindly to as they were growing up.
Werner (1989) studied children on the island of Kauai for 30 years. She found that children who succeeded against all odds had "support networks" outside of their immediate families—people in their lives who helped them to have "a sense of meaning in their lives and a belief that they could control their fate, … [bringing about] an attitude of hopefulness" (p. 110). Werner concluded that "competence, confidence and caring can flourish even under adverse circumstances if young children encounter people in their lives who provide them with a secure basis for the development of trust, autonomy and initiative" (p. 111). A major goal of the language tips in this book is to enable educators to express caring and support for their students in order to enable and empower students to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Negative language surrounds us in newspapers, on television, and in conversations. Take a look at the front section of a daily newspaper, and you will see words such as the following: "fall sharply," "crash," "almost gone," "bans," "destroys," "delays," "criticizes," "debate," "severe," "blame," "weakening," "fading," "illegal," "fighting," "venom," "strikes," and so on. In the media, even when we read a positive statement, it is often immediately followed by the word "but," which tends to cancel out what came before it (Hall, 2004). We continually read about negative possibilities in the future. The authors of the articles don't know for sure, but they want to let us know that dire consequences may occur, and it appears that we can't do anything about the situation. With such negativity constantly in the air, it makes sense that we need to be even more intentional when speaking with students. Rather than creating a culture of fear, we want to create a culture of warmth, caring, encouragement, and empowerment.
Jackson (1968) cited that "the [elementary] teacher engages in as many as 1,000 interpersonal interchanges each day" (p. 11). Berliner (1984) discussed the numerous decisions that teachers make every day. One type of decision was "communicating academic expectations for achievement" (p. 66). He suggested, based on the literature, "that there are powerful effects on performance when teachers communicate their goals for performance to those they are teaching" (p. 66). We can communicate those high expectations by carefully selecting the words that we use.
Expressing Caring in Schools
The following poem expresses the focus of this book:
A Language That Expresses Care
We speak with words;
but words are not just uttered,
they are chosen.
We use a language;
but that language is not merely words,
it is a unique way of choosing to be in the world.
We teach others a way of being in the world;
but they are not mere recipients,
they also choose to show us their lives and hopes.
(John Novak in Purkey & Novak, 1996, p. 9; used with permission)
Plato said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Think about how this quote applies to the students in your classroom. They are all fighting some battle, whether they are children, teenagers, or adults. How we interact with our students may affect the outcomes of those battles. Lambeth (1980) found that secondary student achievement was related to teacher caring, respect, and other elements of interpersonal relationships.
In the mid-1980s, when I was teaching Jim Fay and Foster Cline's seminar titled "Discipline with Love and Logic," one of their overhead transparencies included a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: "Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care." That struck me as a wonderful motto, and I have carried it with me ever since. Truly, our students don't care how much we know, as teachers and instructors, until they know how much we care about them.
Years ago, the son of a friend had just started 1st grade. I asked him how he liked school. His eyes grew wide, and he had a giant smile on his face. "My teacher really likes me!" he exclaimed. I have pondered his comment through the years, visualizing his ecstatic look. As an educator, how can I communicate that I really like all of my students? Ladson-Billings (1994) conducted a study in which she investigated the practices of teachers who were effective with African American students. In one classroom, she asked the students:
"What is it that you like about the class?"
"The teacher!" they responded in unison.
"What do you like about the teacher?" I probed.
"She listens to us!"
"She respects us!"
"She lets us express our opinions!"
"She looks us in the eye when she talks to us!"
"She smiles at us!"
"She speaks to us when she sees us in the hall or in the cafeteria!" (p. 68)
Another teacher in Ladson-Billings's study summed up how we should be treating our students by saying that she treats students as though they were her own children.
Modeling Effective Communication Skills
As we talk with students and with each other, students are assimilating and subsequently modeling our language. We may even affect the ways that families talk with each other as our students use our language at home! Short and colleagues (1999) found that students imitated the language that their teachers used. As a result of conducting their study, they realized the importance of teachers modeling the types of interactions and language that they wanted their students to use.
In the mid-1990s, I managed a million-dollar grant in which teachers were trained in Michael Grinder's (2005) Nonverbal Classroom Management technique. Teachers learned 31 nonverbal strategies that they could use with students. They received coaching first from Michael, and then from colleagues in their schools who were trained to be "Green Chair Coaches." In one of the classrooms that I visited, a student was in charge of the classroom after the lunch period as children came in from the playground. I laughed as I watched the student use the strategies perfectly! Obviously, she was modeling what she had seen her teacher do.
Altering Students' Perceptions
Another goal of the language tips in this book is to help students perceive things in alternate ways. Any given situation can be framed in a number of contexts, each of which can result in quite different feelings. For example, when I go to Denver for my hair appointment, I typically need to park quite a long way from the salon. I have a choice of how I can view the long walk from my car: I can either complain and feel angry, or I can be grateful for the opportunity to get some additional exercise. After all, I pay dues at the gym to be able to use the treadmill!
A friend recently shared a story that shows how even her 5-year-old son had picked up on the concept of perceiving things differently. One day she came home exhausted, lay down on the sofa, and said, "I am feeling tired, sad, and discouraged." Her son immediately countered, "But Mom, you can also look at the situation in lots of other ways!"
When you use the language tips in this book, you may open up new choices for students that they hadn't yet discovered. When we are feeling "stuck," we don't perceive that we have any choices. When we perceive that we have several choices, and that we can choose between them, we gain a new sense of empowerment and energy.
Inviting Students to Learn
The ultimate goal of this book is to help educators send inviting messages to students to help them to realize that they are capable and can learn. According to Purkey and Novak (1996),
Inviting messages are intended to inform people that they are able, valuable, and responsible; that they have opportunities to participate in their own development; and that they are cordially summoned to take advantage of these opportunities. Conversely, a disinviting message informs its recipients that they are irresponsible, incapable, and worthless and that they cannot participate in activities of any significance. An inviting message is an effort to establish a cooperative interaction; a disinviting message is an effort to establish a controlling or negative interaction. (p. 10)
Each day that we influence the lives of our students, we are also influencing our own. Ladson-Billings (1994) discussed the philosophy of Margaret Rossi, one of the teachers in her study. According to Ladson-Billings, "Rossi understands that her future is inextricably linked with that of her students. By ensuring their success, she reasons, she ensures her own" (p. 89). According to Rossi,
These children are the future. There is no way for me to have a secure future if they don't have one. It's going to take three of them to support one of me in my retirement years. They have to be capable of assuming highly skilled positions. (p. 17)
We reap rewards in the present as well. McCombs and Whisler (1997) observed that "learner-centered practices can also make an educator's life more satisfying. Far less energy is needed to devise new ways to keep students involved in class or to make learning interesting to them" (p. 59).
This book is based on the following seven principles:
- Being intentional in every conversation and choosing words to use with students in order to help them feel strong, thus enabling them to be successful in what they are doing.
- Stating what we are saying positively.
- Using words that end with "-ing" to help students make videos in their head and see learning and living as ongoing processes.
- Intentionally using numerous positive presuppositions— phrases in which we are communicating that the student is highly capable and will be succeeding in many ways, both now and in the future.
- Assisting students in going into the future and looking back, having already been highly successful in all that they plan on doing.
- Helping students realize that when they are thinking negative thoughts about their abilities, their thoughts are only perceptions at that moment in time and are subject to change.
- Letting students know that they have complete choice in the ways that they feel and react in any situation.
The table in Figure 1 (see pp. 153–157) is a handy guide that cross-references the invitational language tips in Chapter 5 with the contexts in which they are most appropriate. You can use this table to help you identify the most appropriate use of the language tips in any situation.