Teachers’ Words Can Help Build Futures

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During one particularly frenetic transition in the classroom recently, Mila  bounded up to me and asked, “Mrs. B, do you think I could be a writer someday?”

Without blinking, I emphatically replied, “Absolutely, I can totally see you as a writer.” She smiled and skipped over to join her friends in line to go to recess.

A few minutes later, as we were walking through the halls, I overheard her say excitedly to a friend, “Mrs. B thinks I can be a writer. She told me so.” She walked out for recess practically on air.

I was beaming, too. It was not necessarily for the reason you’d think. I was beaming because Mila is a struggling reader and writer. For her to envision herself as a writer, when I know that she struggles to write a coherent sentence, well, that’s huge. It didn’t even matter if I believed it or not. What mattered is she thought I believed it.

As I pondered that small moment more, I realized that she must have had a moment when she doubted herself. She looked to me to dismiss her fears. I also realized that it was important that I removed any words like “could” or “might” from my reply, removing any doubt that she would, indeed, be a writer someday. What a pivotal moment in this young child’s learning.  

When I was new to teaching, a literacy coach in my district recommended that we address students as “writers” when teaching writing or “readers” when studying reading skills (“Readers, I’d like you to look and listen to this word then think about what it might mean.”). I have since started addressing students as “mathematicians,” “scientists” and “historians,” as needed. I realize it’s a small thing, but students who struggle, are at-risk or are disenfranchised in some way have trouble imagining what their future successes will be or look like. When we address students as what they could be, they create positive visualizations of themselves that otherwise might not have occurred to them in their young lives.

It’s yet another example of the power that our words have over students.

Barlow is an elementary school teacher in Connecticut.