1. What role does school play in building students’ agency and identity?
The old saying, ‘actions speak louder than words’ comes to mind here. Students with the agency are the ones who know how to be the action takers in the classroom. Ideally, schools provide students with the opportunities to demonstrate agency. A school climate that fosters growth mindsets, project-based learning, and values the contribution of all learns will create students who discover their agency. This is a quality education seeks to promote in every human, after all “students who decide that they do have agency increase their efforts, generate a lot of ideas, participate in conversation and group activities, and hold themselves to a high standards” (Fisher, Frey, and Pumpian, 2012, p. 83).
I firmly believe that public education is about building an identity in students. Many students spend more time with teachers than they do their families. This student interaction with teachers, during a time when individuals develop their sense of self, shapes which the students see himself as. As educators, our choice of words are the tools that will shape student. “The school system is responsible for students during a time of significant identity development, including moral development, competencies, and fidelity” (Fisher, Frey, and Pumpian, 2012, p. 83).
2. How aware are you and your colleagues of the impact our choice of words have on developing students’ agency and identity? Can you give examples?
I have a small piece of paper that hangs in an out-of-the-way spot in my classroom. I don’t see this paper every day, it is more likely that I a rediscover this mantra from time to time. On the paper is written “As teachers, we have the power to make or break a student’s day. Which one will you do?” I try hard to remember to be the teacher that is there to support students. I encourage students to foster a Game Player mindset, which others call a growth mindset. Almost half of all my classroom time is spent in group work and I have even introduced reading circles, with group literary discussions. Yet, I know I am a middle school teacher. I know that daily I fall back on bad habits and use verbal irony in my conversations with students. For me, moving away from using sarcasm in the classroom has proven to be a challenge.
I can not speak about my colleagues, as when they are busy teaching, I am in my classroom teaching. I know we have teachers who are bullies and who are just mean people. I know we have teachers with huge hearts and are models of kindness. Each teacher is different, and they all have their work to do.
3. What would you do, if anything, to make using choice words a more conscious and accountable school wide practice if you were the school leader?
In teaching, I am always reminded of the need for explicit instructions. In my classrooms, assignments are reviewed, instructions are explained, rubrics are given, and checklists are used to give students baseline examples. I am not saying that adults should be instructed like children, but how many professional development sessions lack simple explicit instructions.
As a leader, if I want to see my staff engaged in behavior or practice I should give them the tools they need to be successful. Too often it seems that administrators believe that a single PD session can change a school’s cultural climate. This is simply ridiculous. Lasting change is only created through consistent effort. I would create a goal, with my staff, of changing our language. I would provide the resources needed to make the goals achievable. Providing summer reading materials, for example, would be a great way to encourage staff participation. Maybe even breaking the overall goals into manageable units might allow for greater success, like for “Quarter One all teacher will demonstrate the ability to ______ .”
As for accountability, this can take many shapes. For me, I believe that making all teachers accountable to their own selves would be stronger than just a simple observation. If I actually believe in a process that needs to be part of my school’s culture, then I need to have a staff that is equally invested.
4. What could you do, if anything, to make the use of choice words a more conscious and accountable personal practice as well as one embraced by others on your site? Are those things within your sphere of influence?
In my classroom, I have a wall of mantras that I use. I try to read one of my mantras every day to remind myself of something important about my job. I feel that the Organizational Principles (Fisher, Frey, and Pumpian, 2012, p. 89) would be a great addition to my wall. As for others at my site, I can only be responsible for my behavior. If what I do can influence another teacher, then I am on the right track.
5. Commit to 5 things you are willing to do this semester that will make your school choose words wisely?
Mantra: I will post in my room the Organizational Principles for Choice Words.
Sarcasm: I will try to reduce and eliminate the use of verbal irony when talking to students
Random Acts of Kinds: I am just going to be a nicer person, a softer, gentler, and kinder me.
Meetings: I will support and be an active source during PD sessions, training, and staff meetings. During meetings, I will choose my words based on being positive.
Agency: I need to use words and expressions that challenge students to understand that actions and accomplishments are linked.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Pumpian. I. (2012). How to Create a Culture of Achievement In Your Schools and Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD