I can always tell when I call my mother whether or not she’s been crying. I hear it in her voice, in the way she up-speaks to try to sound ok, in the way she assures me everything is fine. But she doesn’t even have to say anything remotely concerning her feelings for me to pick up on it. Now, this is me and my mother over the phone. Imagine how we are in real life. It’s hard to get anything past each other. We read the other’s unspoken language very well.
Johnston’s last chapter in Choice Words talks a lot about how we communicate more with our nonverbal cues than with our language. He’s absolutely right, any communications expert can assure that. When we watch interactions and when we are a part of them, we are designed to pick up and understand the subtle ways in which the words are being spoken, the body language, and this shows us intention far more than words do. Johnston says, “Teaching, like parenting, is, for much of the day, automatic” (77). What Johnston is saying is that our mentality dictates our behaviors. It’s very easy to fall into a pattern during school, especially when your students are younger. They enjoy patterns too, and they pick up on them very fast, and Johnston stresses, “…the messages we convey about noticing, identity, agency, and epistemology have to be consistent conversational threads” (77). However, it is important to break out of that auto-teaching mode and really connect with your students. A student can tell when a teacher is really listening, and when the teacher is formulating the lesson they want to convey instead of listening.
As Johnston states, “We cannot effectively use a particular kind of language if the body and other crucial indicators give conflicting messages” (77). In other words, even though my mother tells me everything is ok and makes her voice sound upbeat, I can still tell she is upset. Whatever you are feeling or thinking will come out in some way, if not in your words. Children are vastly more attentive than we give them credit for. When teaching, we must remember to keep an open and present mind when we are interacting with our students–we must teach ourselves about our children, but we must write that mental label in pencil, because learning changes your students, and if you can’t erase your own assumptions they will never be given the opportunity to grow.
I’ve said it a few times before, so I’ll let Johnston say it this time, “The way we interact with children and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people” (79). If a student is consistently treated as though he is a “bad kid”–i.e., given disapproving glances, being told what to do with lots of sighs and demands, given extra measures to ensure that he is truly paying attention and not joking around–then that kid will unwittingly act the role of the “bad kid” even if he inherently isn’t. The way you communicate with your students is a foundation for them to build from. A distrustful foundation makes for a distrustful student; a strong and reassuring foundation creates a strong student.
This isn’t to say that every student should receive praise or should never be given a punishment. It is important to set boundaries in your classroom, but what Johnston wants us to see is that the way you set up those boundaries is an underlying factor in the performance of the children. Johnston says, “Children who focus on getting praise or on not looking foolish have a much harder time becoming literate than children who focus on engagement in learning activities” (82). It’s tempting as a teacher to try to curb your students’ behaviors by reward and punishment. But this is an unwittingly sabotaging tactic for teachers because it creates standards in their students’ minds that focus on competition or status, instead of context and learning.
I wish I could come up with a few awesome examples of doing the latter rather than the former. To be honest, it’s easy to preach this stuff, and Johnston certainly backs up his claims in his book. However, I still believe that teaching is a constantly evolving career. I believe this because every student is unique and needs a separate, individual way of learning. Johnston definitely makes important points about the way our words and our demeanor as teachers affects our students. The way Johnston ends his chapter hints, to me at least, that he feels the same way. I appreciate his insight into what can make a better classroom environment, and I am glad that he acknowledges the need for change and assimilation in teaching, “Although the genuineness and consistency these teachers show in their interactions with students lies in these deeper beliefs, I think we can start to change our classroom interactions by changing our words and dragging some of our beliefs along with them. The language I have suggested throughout the book is likely to result in changes in other aspects of the classroom dynamic” (84).
Our words affect those around us. It’s a really simple concept. I think Johnston, throughout this book, adequately shows us that what we think is simple, however, turns out to have many different levels of complications. In other words? Teaching is hard, but we can do it. I’d like to say something powerful and moving for my last blog, and honestly I can only come up with one thing:
De do do do, de da da da. That’s all I want to say to you.