“Careful the thing you say – Children will listen and learn.” So starts a song from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. This is something parents should know as they parent with their children, but it is also true for educators. Think about it. Students spend about 6 hours a day in school for 10 months each year for at least 13 years. What happens to them in school has a profound effect on how they grow and the kind of persons they become.
Learning happens all the time. Everything is a ‘teachable moment’. Everything that happens in our lives teaches us something. Everything we hear, every comment made to us, every word has built in potential. This is especially true in schools and for educators. In the educational world, words are our stock-in-trade. Words explain, words define, words assess. Words have the power to change.
It is the case that students attend class (or not), do homework (or not), study (or not), get evaluated and graduate (or not) and, at the end of it all, receive a piece of paper (as a report or diploma) which says, in effect, “This is how successful you are.” But is this stamp of approval from any educational system the sole measure which students use to judge their success? Is what is taught in any course the finite measure of what students learn? Anyone who answers “Yes” to these question has a ridiculously narrow definition of learning coupled with a profound lack of understanding of human nature and development. It’s what happens in the time spent with and in the relationships, especially those developed with their teachers, that students can remember most.
Words can shed light or create darkness. Words can build or destroy. As a student, I remember most the words from my teachers. In grade 4, I remember my teacher (whom I really liked) being kind to me and telling me that, perhaps, I shouldn’t read something quite so hard in front of the class on Reading Friday. What did I learn? Not to risk; not to do anything unless I was so well prepared that I could not stumble; that I had wasted the class’s time; that I had made a foolish choice; that I was not good enough. Is that what she had said? No. But that is what I learned. I remember my grade 5 teacher (who terrified me and who had taught both my sisters before me) say, “I expected more from the sister of Lynette and Sheila.” What did I learn? That I didn’t measure up; that I didn’t work fast enough; that I was not good enough. He had not said those words, but that is what his words taught me. I remember one of my grade 6 teachers loudly stating that the work of several of the students in the class was poorly done and unacceptable (this while he picked up and threw their workbooks down the aisle between a row of desks). What did I learn? That teachers’ word was law; that they had the power to decide what happened to me next; that I had to work extra hard to make sure that something like that didn’t happen to me; that I should be afraid. Was that his intent? I doubt it, but that was the result.
Was it all negative? Was it all fear-filled? Far from it. I had gifted teachers who loved learning, made it fun, held me as able, challenged me to always give everything my best effort, and helped me grow. From those teachers over the years, I learned that learning can be fun and challenging and possible and altering. I believe that it is because of these positive memories and what I learned about myself from those gifted educators that I chose to become an educator myself.
But as an educator, I never forgot the things I learned inadvertently from what my teachers said to me – the words which they used and how they spoke them. As a student, I did learn Math, and English, and French, and Science. But I learned so much more about what others thought of me, what I was capable of, what I could try, what was safe, what to expect. It’s interesting for me to remember completing vocabulary development lessons in Words Are Important in grade 9. The irony of that title has never been lost on me. For educators, words are important. So, as Sondheim wrote: “Careful the things you say — Children will listen and learn”. All educators need to remember that as they move forward in their chosen profession.