communicate with students, we enter a fascinating and dynamic dance between
sender and receiver. Examining our teacher language in light of five categories
(directing, reminding, reinforcing, redirecting, reflecting) helps us match the
language we use to our purposes. But for all our efforts to be clear, we cannot
control what a student is able or willing to hear, and sometimes we discover
that they hear or interpret our language in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
objective mindset is essential when things are turbulent—when students blurt,
bluster, blame, or blow up.
But even when I was rock-steady in my role as
teacher or principal, that didn’t guarantee that all students experienced me as
welcoming, fair, or kind.
Sometimes, even though I tried hard to deliver objective,
important, and unemotional redirections, they experienced me (maybe because of
my authority) as dominating, maybe even frightening. It’s interesting,
sometimes surprising, and always important how differently various students
this portrait left in my office for me by a student whom I thought I had
treated with the utmost equanimity. He had been referred from his classroom
because he was having a very hard time and could not manage some of his social
entanglements. Our conversation did not quell his storm.
students observing me in that very same moment of redirection, problem-solving,
or Social Contract maintenance might have perceived me quite differently—perhaps
as a respectful but firm steward, a dutiful caretaker of the community.
day, two students delivered a drawing to me with a note of gratitude for my
involvement with them and their classmates in calming a social squall.
there were those who were curious about what made me tick. They wondered who was
behind the administrator/Social Contract-keeper façade. To these students, I was
an enigma. They suspected there was a quirky, possibly nerdy human being behind
the man in the principal’s office. (They might have been correct!) They observed
and assessed my behavior, maybe looking for hints of something less wooden,
more whimsical. They conjured a quizzical, morphing notion of who I am, one
that didn’t cement our relationship, but instead had room for growth and
Here is a
drawing I received from a girl with whom I worked for many hours over time.It
might have been a way of saying thank you. Or maybe she was saying, “you’re
weird.” Or maybe she was saying, “Break out! You can be anything you want to
beautiful and challenging thing about teaching is that the myriad and unique qualities
of our relationships are negotiated through our communications. Through our
sometimes surprising exchanges, we work toward important goals together.
Sometimes we encounter detours and learn things about ourselves. We and our
students grow in and around our relationships. And if we don’t take them too
personally, we can truly enjoy them.
How does your teacher language depict you in your students’ eyes?
Todd Bartholomay is the Programs and Special Projects Director for The Origins Program. A long-time practitioner of the Developmental Designs
approach, he taught at the middle level for fourteen years. He also served as a principal in the St. Paul
Public Schools, where he was in school adminstration for ten years.
Posted August 2013