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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Our Words Matter

By Peter DeWitt — October 02, 2011 4 min read
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“Don’t be so busy looking for problems that you forget to notice improvements.” Todd Whitaker.

Turn on the television for a moment. Listen carefully to the conversations and interactions of the adults that are on the program you are watching. If you passively listen as you finish chores around the house you may not be aware of the disturbing amount of negativity that we are exposed to. Actively listen to some news programs and reality television, and you should find yourself concerned about the amount of fighting and blaming that is constantly being thrown at viewers.

The Love Boat used to have the key formula you would see on every dramatic show. Passengers would board the boat, start off in love, have a fight, make up and leave the boat happy by the end of the episode. The show focused on problem solving between two adults in order to find common ground.

Although we know life doesn’t always work out like an episode of the Love Boat, I feel as though many programs are going in the opposite direction. Reality television seems to exploit negative human relationships. The episodes are rarely about problem solving, and seem to focus on fighting, arguing and talking negatively about someone when they are not around.

Teachable Moments for All of Us
How can we learn from the negative images that seem to surround us? As administrators, teachers and staff, we need to realize that our words matter, especially when we spend our days with kids. We know the value of a positive conversation. Whether that conversation is with a colleague or someone we have long admired, there is a feeling of euphoria when we have a high quality conversation. We do not need a test to assess that feeling.

However, we need to realize the magnitude of a negative conversation. Some adults do not understand that their negative interactions and attitudes can be transferred to the children around them. Children can be intuitive and pick up on negative body language and they can definitely pick up on negative conversations.

Negative conversations come from some sort of unhappiness. Whether somone is unhappy at home or had an argument with a colleague, there are ways to deal with that unhappiness because our students do not need to be exposed to it. Very often people say that they do not like confrontation. However, when done correctly and respectfully, confrontation can lead to a better place. As difficult as confrontation may be, it is much easier than ignoring someone for twenty years because you did want to confront them about an issue.

Bad Days
Everyone has a bad day but it’s what we do with that bad day that matters. If we sit in a faculty room or administration meeting and vent to our colleagues, some of the adults leave the room feeling much more negative than when they walked in. Some people do enough on their own to hurt their reputation, we do need to help them ruin it.

Times are tough. We have increased class sizes, more mandates from the state and federal education departments than ever before, and the years to come do not look like they will be any easier. We lack control over some of those outside influences but we certainly do not lack control over our own words. Many times we make the choice to have a negative day.

We all have reasons to be angry. Perhaps we left the house late, got caught behind a slow car and when we finally passed the car we were caught behind a school bus. It is at that moment when we have a choice. It is at that point that we choose whether our day is going to be bad or good. We all have tough circumstances that we face daily, but it doesn’t mean we have to ruin our day, especially when we work with children.

What This Means for Kids
A child’s reality - The school day may be the only time when our students have the opportunity to be exposed to a positive atmosphere. Many of our students have been negatively affected by the economy. Schools can sometimes be stressful enough for kids, we do not need to add to the stress by complaining in front of students.

When we spend our time complaining we don’t spend it finding solutions - It is human nature to point out the issues around us, but it doesn’t do us any good if we don’t find the solutions to those problems. In addition, our students didn’t sign on to listen to our problems. It’s actually the reverse situation. We signed on to listen to their issues and help them work those issues out.

Our students are exposed to many negative images - It is a strong possibility that children are being exposed to more negative images than we are and they are not mature enough to process it. Whether it’s through television, movies or peer relationships, we need to counterbalance this fact by offer appropriate and positive interactions.

Our Interactions matter - Our interactions model how our students will interact with one another. We need to be aware that our students are watching and hearing most of what we say. Sure, they may seem like they may be ignoring our directions, but I can assure you that they will pick up when something negative is being said.

Sometimes it seems that the people who are the most concerned about negative interactions are the ones who may be the most responsible for them. As adults we all vent from time to time but we need to be sure that we are not venting negatively in front of children. We also need to make sure that our need to vent does not run into a need to continue complaining.

Besides great parents, there are no other adults that can make a positive impact of a student’s life than a teacher (...and hopefully an administrator!). Teachers educate students in so many positive ways. They teach them new material, give students someone to confide in, and are the role models that our students need. No matter how bad things get in education, we can always count on the fact that our students need us.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.