The words we use matter, always.
When we offer kindness, love, and support, we build people up.
When we are critical, or unkind, or mean, the words we deliver bring people down.
On the pages of my blog, in educational journals, and in other forums, I have often shared stories of how kind words make a positive difference. It happens all of the time.
When I run races, especially marathons, the words of encouragement shouted from the spectators makes an absolute difference in my mental state and my performance. When people call out, “You look great” or “You can do it!” I believe them – sincerely and absolutely. Positive words from people I don’t know and will never meet have helped me in each of my twenty marathons.
Just yesterday I was playing softball in the league I compete in. I was fortunate, I had a good day. It seemed that every ball hit to me at shortstop, I handled cleanly. Each time, my teammates shouted, “Great play” or “Paul, you’re doing super today.” The confidence from my teammates helped to make me have more confidence in myself, and, as a result, I played better.
Words matter. Absolutely. Always.
A while back, I wrote a column titled Newton, Autographs, and the Teacher. (That essay is contained in my new book Impossible is an Illusion.) In that passage, I wrote the following:
“I sometimes sit in awe of the tremendous power a teacher possesses – the tremendous impact that a teacher has on a child’s self-image now – and in the future. A teacher can use his autograph, the imprint he leaves on a child, to change a life. The positive words teachers leave inspire children to work harder, to give more, and to always strive to be their better selves.”
And, while I sincerely believe all of that to be true, I think, sometimes, we forget the impact we have on others and the simple fact that our own words matter. It’s easy to point out how other people have brought us up or down, but it’s more difficult to examine when we have a similar impact on others. (After all, I didn’t say to my teammates, “Keep telling me how good I am, it’ll make me even better.” All I did was smile and give high fives and fist bumps – and hope that I would continue to catch everything hit my way. Similarly, in a marathon, I don’t stop when people cheer for me. I never go back to the spectator to say, “Your kind words are helping me through the race.”)
But, sometimes, out of the blue, a word is said, a card arrives in the mail, or an e-mail comes through that reminds us of our impact on others. Again, I think this is especially true for teachers and other educators because our words impact on the people who are the future. By providing support, kindness, affirmation, and even love, educators can help to shape a positive world and a positive future.
I was reminded of this fact just the other day when I received the following message in my e-mail:
Good afternoon Dr. Semendinger,
I am not sure if you remember me, but I was a student of yours in the Seminar Class at William Paterson in the Spring Semester of 2014.
After a rough experience with my cooperating teacher during my student teaching, I took some time off to do some reflecting on where I wanted to head career wise. While I was cleaning off my desk, I found a paper I wrote for your class and you wrote “always be the positive difference in the classroom.” At that moment I realized I shouldn’t let a bad experience ruin my dream of becoming a teacher.
This past school year I took a paraprofessional aide job at my former middle school to help me become acclimated again in an educational environment. It was by far the best decision I have ever made! I was an in-class support aide, filled a maternity leave position, got recommended for a tutoring job, and even chaperoned numerous field trips. Most importantly I found my passion again that I was missing!
Thank you for your time and everything you have done for me.
(A Former Student)
I taught this student over three years ago. It wasn’t yesterday…
But my words mattered.
And it was only eight words. Eight. That’s all I wrote. I didn’t write a paragraph. I didn’t write even ten words. I wrote eight. And yet, those words made a difference to this former student. A huge difference. In a way, I helped to change a life. In a bigger way, as this former student becomes a teacher who hopefully spreads kindness and a positive message, those eight words will influence many more people.
This is the power that good can bring. It is the impact of kindness. It is what truly matters.
Henry Adams once said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
As educators, our biggest job is helping our students learn to believe in themselves. Our job is to build up others. We need to encourage. We need to support. We need to set the highest standards. We need to be kind. We need to love…
These are the simple elements that truly make a difference.
As we plan lessons, and programs…
As we design assessment tools and grading formulas…
As we create curriculum and input data into on-line programs…
We must never forget that our most important job as educators is to reach the hearts of our students. We must bring passion to our classrooms. We must look to the good.
And we must never forget that our words matter – and as such, we must use them, today and every day, to build others up in a meaningful way.