Ready, Set…December! Framing Our Messages in a Season of Excitement & Anxiety

The December push has begun!

In the midst of all the joy and excitement, do you find this time of year a little extra challenging? With the energy levels (positive and negative) increasing a few ticks each day, things can sometimes come off the rails in terms of classroom policies, student behavior, and our patience levels. Caution: This is a perfect recipe for an, “I wish I hadn’t said/done that” situation.

As we count down the days until break (whether in bright colors on our boards or only in our hearts), we will need to be strategic in how we frame our messages with students. We’ll need to work hard to keep our students focused and to help them navigate what is, for many, a stressful and uncertain time of year.

Here is Part 2 of our discussion about how we can communicate in a way that increases buy in and prevents resistance. (Find Pt. 1 here).

Give Students Choice

Often, students resist our messages because they feel a sense of powerlessness over matters that not only impact them but also involve their participation. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss this reality and worse, even take advantage of it. I’m sure each of us can remember a time when we used a test or project or grade as a way to leverage our power.

There’s a sense in which this represents simply the natural aspect of being the teacher. In most cases, you’ll be the one planning activities and delivering messages. By virtue of you being the adult in the room, students understand that you are a figure of authority.

But let’s work to use our authority to alleviate students’ stress, rather than add to it.

This really does come down to a matter of proper framing.

Consider these Messages:

Teacher: We’re going to change some routines around here.
Responses of Powerlessness: Why? What have I done? What if I’m happy with the way things are? Why don’t we get a say in this?

Teacher: There’s a test coming next week.
Responses of Powerlessness: I don’t have the time to study. I don’t understand this material. I don’t know what the test will look like.

Teacher: You have a paper due next week about Lady Macbeth.
Responses of Powerlessness: I don’t want to write about her. I hate writing papers. I don’t need to know how to write about this stuff.

How would offering a choice give ownership, distribute power and control to students, and reduce resistance?

As an example, what if the test announcement went like this:

There’s a test coming next week, and I want you to feel well-prepared. So I thought to help you feel confident about it, you could use one or all of these resources to help you study. (List them). What are some other ways I can help you get ready ? (Listen to their ideas). Ok, I can do that. I also want you to know that I’m available after school on Tuesday and Thursday and would be happy to meet with you. I’ll also contribute to the online discussion board that Bob said he’d create. Also, remember that you’ll have a choice of which questions to answer for the short response and essay section.

Look back at their initial responses of powerlessness. See how you’ve just addressed each of these concerns.

You’ve given them a sense of control over their own success, communicated that you care about them, and increased buy in.

Are they going to dance for joy now about a test? Probably not. But they’re also not going to sulk, or rant, or shut down. They’re likely going to be more successful on the test because they’ll have had a variety of ways to prepare and their attitudes will be more positive. This is a win for you and your students.

Use Heart and Soul Words

In “The Case for Short Words,” Lederer (2009) states, “When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words. Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words—like sun and grass and home—are best of all. A lot of small words, more than you might think, can meet your needs with a strength, grace, and charm that large words do not have” (para. 1).

Here, Lederer encourages us to use simple words to both simplify and amplify our messages.

As we consider ways to fill our communication with “strength and grace,” let’s focus on not just short words but soul words: those that cut through the noise and speak to our students’ spirits.

Soul words carry emotion and communicate compassion and care. They stand out to students because they go beyond facts and deal in the area of feelings. Students find these words powerful for two reasons:

  1. They are not accustomed to hearing them.
  2. They don’t often interact with their teachers on an emotional level.

Consider the messages that students hear in the hallways, on social media, in the locker room, or in advertisements. How much of this language is focused on building them up? On valuing them as people of worth?

Also, consider the messages that most students hear from us: facts and instructions and evaluations and corrections. Not much in the way of soul-stirring motivation.

But using heart and soul words, especially at this time of year when people are often more emotionally charged, is a powerful strategy in framing your messages with students.

Here are just a few:

Achieve, Appreciate, Believe, Care, Desire, Dream, Honor, Hope, Joy, Love, Matter (as in, “you matter”), Proud, Success, Thankful, Thrive, Value, Vision, Worth

The list is endless, but think about how weaving these words into your sentences could help edify your students and make even difficult messages easier to hear.

I believe that you are capable of achieving great success.

Remember that I’m in your corner, and I want to honor you by pushing and challenging you as your pursue your dreams. You’re worth it.

Remember that feedback is meant to help us thrive. Work to embrace it, remembering that your value is not defined by a grade or by someone else’s opinion of you.

I appreciate all the time you’ve put into this unit and want you to have the chance to show off your learning.

I’m proud of you for (state something specific).

Try this; I assure you that you will sense the power of these words in your students’ responses—their facial expressions, their quietness, their AWWW’s, or their affirmation that something was, “deep.”

Apply this Tomorrow

  1. What messages will you deliver in the next week that might cause students to feel powerless (upcoming due dates, policy changes, grade reports, etc)? How could you give them choice in this area, solicit their opinions, and/or increase their sense of ownership? Write the script for what you will say.
  1. Add one Heart and Soul statement to your lesson plan or write it on the board each day this week. Notice students’ responses. Prepare to push through the discomfort or awkwardness that this might create…(yours and/or the students’). Remember that students don’t hear these messages very often, and we may not share them frequently enough.  Drops of rain are slow to heal the parched earth but, in time, begin to make the  ground soft once more.


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