How Our Words Impact Teaching | Coaching in the Classroom

Request Coaching on Your Words

An article by Alyssa Nucaro, Positive Words Go a Long Way: Simple ways to frame what you say to students to encourage and empower them,  establishes several “listen for” items that a teacher could give to a coach for observation and feedback. Two thoughts from Nucaro identify why this topic is worthy of being a coaching focus:

  • Positive language is a driving force in creating a classroom community that learns together, grows together, and supports one another
  • Using powerful and effective teacher language takes a lot of practice and awareness

I recall that when my daughter was in the primary grades, I got a quick glimpse on her teachers’ language every time she played school. With a few dolls propped up with a book or pencil and paper, she would play teacher. As she gave the dolls feedback on their work or behavior, her teacher’s negative phrases (“Not like that” or “That’s wrong”) or positive phrases (“Start with you pencil like this” or “That word is____) emerged. Overhearing her play, I often wondered if her teachers had any idea how quickly students pick up and can mimic a pattern that as teachers we unaware of in our language. (I also knew that my parenting words were mimicked in other play.)

Because our responses in the busy classroom are mostly unconscious, they become a valuable source of coaching feedback. Observing coaches need only collect our comments and play them back to us for our reflection. The coach need not make any conclusions about appropriateness. As a teacher, aware of my words, I can decide any conscious changes I’d like to make.

Nucaro focuses on these five areas which teachers can consider as “look-for” items in their statements that their coach collected:

  1. Convey faith in student abilities – Communicate you believe they will be successful
  2. Use positive vocabulary – Model positive language to impact students’ language
  3. Choose words wisely – Be inclusive and empowering
  4. Be honest and direct – Use compassionate and straightforward language
  5. Avoid using the word “don’t” – Provide direction with “do this” rather than “don’t do that”

A possible coaching scenario:

Consider sharing Nucaro’s article with teachers and facilitating a conversation around their beliefs regarding the role that teachers’ language and words play in impacting student learning. What do they want their words to communicate? When do individual teachers feel they are most conscious of their word choices? When do they think they are most unaware?

Have teachers select a learning activity they would like to have observed and their language/word choices noted. Ask teachers in pre-conferences to assist in designing the best way to record their language:

  • Perhaps a simple list of teacher comments made to the whole class.
  • If the coach knows the names of students, a T-chart can record the individual teacher comments followed by the name of the student who received it.
  • A seating chart made by the teacher can allow the coach to record the teacher’s comments connected to the student who received it.
  • Videoing a teacher’s facilitation of a learning activity can allow for a teacher’s full critique of his/her language.

In a post conference the teacher can reflect on the comments the coach recorded. I find that providing the teacher the opportunity to share her observations and reflections first, increases the depth of the conversation. So, I might begin like this:

How conscious of your comments were you during the activity?

Were there times you consciously thought through or rethought a response before sharing it?

Were there any times you heard your response and thought you would have liked it to be different?

At this point, I would share the collected responses with the teacher. After a pause for her to survey the notes and comment or ask for clarity, I might ask:

Where do your comments reinforce the messages you want students to be receiving?

Is there anything you notice in your responses to different students?

Do any of your comments create a concern or question for you?

Is there anything you’d like to explore in a future observation?

The classroom is a very complex environment with an endless array of opportunities for coaching observations and feedback.  In a podcast, Everyone Deserves a Coach, I explored why the most professionally skilled teachers deserve coaching. They work at the most complex levels.

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