I learned early on in my teaching career that words have an incredible amount of power. I could say the simplest thing and absolutely make a student’s day. However, the opposite also rang true. I could say something without thinking that had the ability to severely upset a student as well.
We are taught: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I don’t know about you, but my friends and I would use this as a mantra in grade school. It served as almost a spell that warded off insults. We teach this to children because we know the cruelty that exists in childhood. Kids say hurtful things to each other. Sometimes on purpose with an intent to harm, but usually due to a lack of maturity.
As we get older and wiser, most of us learn to wield are words with caution. We gain empathy. We acquire the ability to consider the consequences of our words. We understand that once a string of words is uttered, it can never be taken back. We choose our words carefully.
Whether I like it or not, I am an authority figure when in my classroom. I watch every single word I say because I know that my voice has the most power within those four walls. My voice sets the tone of the room. My words influence the actions of my students. If I am calm, kind, encouraging, and articulate, my students’ mirror that.
During the first few years of my career, when I was barely past twenty-five, I enjoyed zinging my students. We liked to banter with each other. Typically, the insults were playful and harmless — I thought I was being funny. However, sometimes a student would take it too far, and I would get upset. I eventually realized that I had nothing to get upset about — the students were following my lead. I set that tone. My words dictated their actions.
In my early thirties, I stopped zinging kids. I kept the jokes goofy and innocent — “dad jokes,” as my students call them. Since then, I’ve found that the environment in my classroom has become far more relaxed, far more tolerant, and far more supportive.
Authority figures must be careful with their words. I disagree with the notion that leaders have to “tell it like it is” because “like it is” is often a matter of perspective, and “like it is” is typically rooted in an agenda of some sort. My “like it is” is not the same as your “like it is.”
There’s nothing wrong with considering others’ feelings. There’s wisdom in predicting the potential ramifications of words. There’s decency in showing restraint.
Choosing words that inform, inspire, and invigorate — that’s true leadership.
(Did you enjoy this article? Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)