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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Can You Say What You Mean Without Hurting Someone?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 20, 2015 4 min read
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Mediating the expression of emotion is a life-long learned skill. It begins with teaching toddlers how to express frustration or anger in ways other than throwing themselves on the floor and screaming. “Use your words” is an oft heard refrain from the parents of those thrashing about. We have learned over the years that the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never harm me” is untrue and names can be very harmful. In schools, name-calling is heard and corrected all the time. It is a form of expression that communicates the need to hurt or desire to put down another. The move from thrashing about to using words ought not be the last step. Knowing the emotion that is at work inside has to evolve so that choosing words, carefully, allows for intent and words to match.

A very well liked teacher greeted a student saying, “Here comes trouble.” When asked what he was feeling that provoked that statement, he replied, “I was happy to see him.” What holds us back from expressing our true feelings? What message was sent to that child? What difference might it have made if the teacher had said, “Good morning! I’m happy to see you today.” We are not suggesting that “Here comes trouble” did irreparable damage but it is an example of how even in the most unexpected ways, we don’t say what we truly feel.

So, when it comes to being angry, or frustrated, or hurt, or frightened, unless we have developed the capacity to work through the response emotion and get to the root emotion and then to have the knowledge and courage to express it, name calling remains the go-to response. As educators, we have a responsibility to help children develop this ability, even if the other adults in their lives have not. We have a valuable opportunity to help students learn that there are healthier ways to express themselves than being hurtful. Saying what we feel and truly what we mean is powerful and welcomed in an environment where students and their educators spend their days and are being asked to take risks and live through change daily.

The Challenge
The media has exposes us to less than polite exchanges when people are disagreeing. In fact, the term “politically correct” has become a bad word for those who feel sided lined as our culture has moved away from name calling. This year’s presidential race is causing us to confront the issues again as it raises the ugly head of name calling again. Will those using the freedom of speech on a political stage influence our efforts to model and teach how to say what you think and feel using descriptive words? Will that influence our purpose to teach children how to cooperate and work with diverse groups? In this environment will it become more difficult for us to teach name-calling is a hurtful behavior that should be avoided? Or will it give us the reason to recommit to modeling and teaching that the expression of emotion should hold respect and clarity?

The Opportunity
Within these days of leaning into the 21st century, learning and changing schools and the practices that live within them, lies the opportunity to choose the language used inside the school walls. In times of change which this century guarantees, sensitivity coupled with vulnerability rises. The response to name-calling is either to shut down or throw stones back. Opposing views do not require either name-calling or accusations. Especially in a learning environment, ideas and positions should be welcomed safely.

Leaders can invite all in a building to become more alert to language. It takes courage to challenge one another on our language when we work together daily but the risk is worth it and the trust that is built transforms. Mid-January will bring the annual “No Name Calling Week”. This year we have national figures who are making this a very easy to identify issue. Because of that, however, it may be a more difficult conversation to have in schools. But, before then, perhaps leaders might lean into some winter-break reflection on how to move societally to “No Name Calling Forever.”

What steps in preparation can be taken? Perhaps:

  • calling together a group of faculty, students, staff, and parents to being a conversation about the current state of name calling in the school and outside it
  • develop a survey to collect information about how everyone in the organization feels about the language used and the methods used to intervene and teach.
  • after collecting the responses, ongoing conversations about the language noticed between adults with each other and with students with adults and each other can begin
  • in tandem with the conversations, new behaviors for moving from name calling to a wiser place might emerge.

But, if we are learning from this presidential race, it is that not all will agree on the word “wiser”. Has “politically correct” taken on a new connotation? Is the distance between saying what we think and feel and attending to the feelings of others widening? Bridging that divide is where leadership matters and where courage counts.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.