Careful the Things You Say

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn

Steven Sondheim, Into the Woods

The Witch in the famous Sondheim musical was singing her cautionary song to parents, but the message is just as important for teachers.

Teachers are trained to become extremely vigilant; not only of the behaviour of students under their care, but also of their own behaviour. This is not a profession where one can have an “off” day and lock oneself away in an office, growling, “Don’t disturb me,” to one’s secretary on the way past. Heck, sometimes a simple trip to the grocery store can become an exercise in public scrutiny. Teachers are also human (gasp!) and sometimes forget the impact that our words and deeds have on our students.

A recent coffee date with a business-savvy friend of mine resulted in me contacting a number of past students, who have remained in contact with me over the years, to ask for short video testimonials from them. I’ve long lost count of the number of testimonials and reference letters I’ve written for students over the years, so I reckoned I could call in a favour or few. The responses have been both edifying and humbling. Apart from being moved by the warmth, generosity and love contained in the messages, I’ve been reminded of many moments which had disappeared into the foggy depths of my mind; some of them probably seconds after they occurred. Short moments for me – some planned and considered, some spontaneous – but lasting impressions for the students who shared those moments.

Students, like elephants, never forget.

Judging by some of the video anecdotes I’ve been getting, I realise that students are like elephants; they never forget! Like many teachers I know and respect, I’ve had plenty of moments of spontaneous “madness”. I remember standing on my head for a minute, in order to coax Grade 12 students into using the literary present tense consistently in their essays. (It worked!) I have hijacked “illegal” skateboards and skated off on them (I’m a pretty good skateboarder). I’ve broken into song and dance on many occasions and my students have been treated to (or tormented by) countless accents and impersonations. I’ve forgotten most of these incidents, but I’m now reminded that sometimes my moment of “madness” was the only thing that brought a smile to that student’s face on an otherwise difficult day.

What a gigantic responsibility. What an enormous privilege.

To affect people’s lives in a lasting and positive way is an enormous privilege and one of the greatest rewards of teaching. It also carries gigantic responsibility. If a quick word of encouragement can be remembered for life, so can a negative comment. If a daily smile and a nod of approval can change someone’s attitude towards school and towards themselves, so can a frown or a disapproving gesture. If a passionate attitude towards a subject, and to learning in general, can create interested, life-long learners, then of course a disinterested teaching approach will create the opposite response in students. So be careful teachers; children can … and do … listen.

Keep checking my Testimonials page, as well as my Video of the Week in the sidebar, to view some of the lovely testimonials my students are sending me. (And if you’re a past or present student or parent – I’d love to hear from you.)

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