Sticks and Stones…

Sticks and Stones…….

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.

What kind of lunatic wrote that? I have had broken bones, lost lots of blood, received lots of stitches, and have received many black eyes. I can’t remember the story behind half of them. The cuts have healed, the bones have healed, and the scars have faded. I have been hurt by words. The scars from those words are just as painful today as they were the day they were said to me.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but bones heal, words can leave permanent damage.

My 11 year old daughter came home with a spelling test Monday to be signed—all tests have to be signed, even if it is a 100. On this test she received an “A” and under the grade was a note from the teacher that read “Your handwriting is terrible. It must improve or I will give you extra homework.” Terrible?!! If you want a kid to improve do you call them terrible? If my daughter’s friend was to give a presentation in class would a kid be able to stand up and say “that was terrible!” There are so many ways to motivate children to change their habits. Why do so many teachers use mean words? My daughter is the type of kid that would do anything if a teacher asks. Why not lean over her shoulder and whisper “ You are doing awesome on your spelling tests, but if you can just write a little neater it would really help me be able to read your answers.” Instead she feels terrible because she has been labeled terrible.

The words that are chosen by a teacher carry so much meaning and power. I think we all forget just how much power we have. When a kid falls down in class and forgets homework, does poorly on a test, or even is the biggest thorn in our side, we have a choice to use words that beat them down or lift them up. Great teachers do not focus on beating kids down and putting them in their “place.” Great teachers lift kids up with their words and reveal to students that they can do what they previously thought was impossible. They find a way to give their kids wings.

Until the eagle’s children discovered their wings there was no purpose for their lives.
David McNally

Last night we had a conference with my other daughter’s teacher. My wife mentioned that my daughter was a bit tired of being stuck in the same class again with some…ummm…rambunctious kids. The teacher talked about how she is taking a positive approach with dealing with these kids. She is not using a marble jar or a system of punishing rules. She is trying some positive management schemes that impacts the individuals and not the entire class, and that slowly their behavior is shaping up and changing. What I noticed, and I might totally be wrong here, is that her voice and body posture changed while telling us this–almost like she was bashful about going against the educational gods by not simply laying down the law, being strict, and using all those mean words to show them who was boss. She is in a school in which class wide punishments for single kids actions are common, and as I stated previously, mean words are used to change behavior.

She and every teacher should realize that what you do to one kid you do to the entire class. Saying mean words to one kid, is just like infecting the entire class. It shows the class that being mean, sarcastic, putting them in their place, or yelling is an acceptable form of behavior, and it should not surprise us that the students in those rooms often get in trouble for doing and saying the same things that the teachers have said to them. Using words to lift students, lifts the entire class. Being kind even while “disciplining” a kid reminds the entire class to be kind even when they are dealing with the knuckleheads in this world. In my daughter’s class it might take 10 months to get the kids “under control” but my daughter will have learned that love is more powerful than being mean. You can actually change negative behaviors by being kind, loving, and yes…even by being fun.

I wonder if mean words come from giving work that is not authentic… With authentic work, the lesson learned comes from the results. Miss a meeting and your client doesn’t hire you. Hand in paper work for a grant late and you don’t get the money. Repair cars incorrectly and the shop asks you to leave. Don’t make correct change as a cashier and the difference is taken from your pay. If you do something wrong in school for an assignment that in reality does not mean anything, do teachers feel the need to tech you a lesson with their words? Or do the words come from a place that is angry not because of the students actions but because of the teachers inability to control the actions?

I have noticed that by the time kids get to me they have already been “taught” who they are, how they should act, what they will be. Not blantantly, but in a subliminal way. The “smart” kids are encouraged to go onward and upward, the “troubled” kids, whether behavior or academic, are told do “this” or else–they are stuck in a constant struggle with someone who is trying to control them. The troubled kids have stopped believing in themselves, have stopped believing that they can use their wings to fly, and that they do have a purpose in this world. We spend a lot of time putting them down. We should be spending our time lifting them up and teaching them to spread their wings and fly.

The next time you have the have the opportunity to speak to a kid about that annoying behavior they have, whether it’s talking in class, not putting their name on their paper, chewing gum, or even being a bully…try using words that lift them up, instead of words that put them down. In the end you want them to fly with the eagles, instead of scratching down with the chickens 😉

A man once found an eagle’s egg and put it in the nest of a barnyard hen. The eagle hatched and grew up with the rest of a brood of chicks and though he didn’t look at all the same. He scratched the earth for worms and bugs and played the chicken’s games. The eagle clucked and cackled, he made a chicken’s sound; He thrashed his wings, but only flew some two feet off the ground. That’s high as chickens fly, the eagle had been told. The years passed and one day when the eagle was quite old. He saw something magnificent flying very high and making great majestic circles up there in the sky. He’d never seen the likes of it. “What’s that?” he asked in awe, while he watched in wonder at the grace and power he saw. “Why that’s an eagle,” someone said, “He belongs up there, it’s clear. Just as we, since we are chickens, belong earthbound down here.” The old eagle just accepted that, most everybody does. And he lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.


  1. Amen and A-ho!

    I carry around a lot of voices from the past and spend a lot of energy trying not to listen to them — I can actually *hear* the voices and if not careful can be *right back there* feeling small and lousy and unworthy. Imagine what could be if what I heard were encouraging voices, imagine the energy I’d have for other things!

  2. Words can not only do permanent damage, they can heal. Your daughter is lucky to have both you and your wife to help heal the wound inflicted by her teacher. And I hope you added a comment back to the teacher when you signed the test. One that would point out the damage done.

  3. I enjoyed reading both of your posts ( yours and your wife’s) and I am so glad that your daughters have you both to advocate for them and to mediate the effects of teacher comments. I wonder how teachers can possibly “not realize” the impact of their words. I can imagine it must be very hard work to change a child’s self concept when they get to you after years of those “subliminal” and covert messages. As a kindergarten teacher I try very diligently to keep in mind the power of my words and even my facial expressions. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Can I smack this teacher?

    It has been a long, long time but those voices still echo in my head, and they still hurt, and when adults intentionally hurt children (and I believe this is the case here) I call it child abuse.

    The goal can not be to control through humiliation – or to control through repetitive meaningless tasks (do any of us care about handwriting anymore?). In fact, the goal can not be about control at all. The goal has to be about learning and exploration, adventure and thought-out risk, and those things are encouraged by telling kids what they can do, not what they can’t.

  5. I know that I say things to students and regret it almost immediately. I spend a lot of time thinking about what message my words, expressions, and actions are sending to students. I can’t imagine putting into writing something so hurtful to someone so young.

    I’m glad to hear that your other daughter has found a better situation. I hope things improve for this daughter as well.

  6. Respectfully… the teacher didn’t label your daughter terrible… she said her handwriting is terrible! It’s up to YOU to point that out if your daughter is taking the observation too personally. I sometimes think parents jump to the defense of their children way too quickly, and it doesn’t really help the child learn to be resilient or accept criticism.
    I do appreciate the post reminding us of how easily we can hurt the feelings of our students, but sometimes it’s frustrating thinking that every comment I write will be scrutinized by an adult and possibly blown out of proportion. If I couldn’t (for whatever reason) have had a conversation with your daughter, and HAD to write something about her handwriting, what would have been an acceptable to you? Just curious. In a perfect world, I’d be able to have small mini conferences with every child in my classroom whenever I needed them and there would never be any hurt feelings or misunderstanding….

  7. Imagine Janice if you looked up to me, and after leaving your comment that you had worked so hard on, all I left for you is a response that was “Janice your comment is terrible.” What we have to remember is that if an adult gets that comment we have the strength and wisdom to deal with it. My little ol’ daughter does not. Criticism is kid you writing is messy, you have to clean it up so that I can read it. I don’t think my daughter took it too personally, and I think after seeing the comment, seeing others, and hearing what the teacher has said she is being mighty strong. Stronger than I would be if someone had said equivalent things about my writing. What I have found is that the kids who are least resilient and least able to accept criticism are the ones who receive it the most. Receiving criticism doesn’t build a kid up. Being supportive, being patient, giving the kid a second chance fills their bucket so that when the world is mean and criticism comes, they have plenty of water to help wit h the burns. I see too many kids leaving school with empty buckets. They have used all their energy in school to be resilient, and graduate burned out and hollow.
    And I think we need to remember that good feedback on assessments leads a kid tells a kid what to do.
    Also, Janice….there is a bit more to the story, but didn’t think it was fair to put it out on the internet. I try real hard to not write anything about teachers I directly work with, or teachers my daughters have. I did in this post, but left out other pieces of the story that I thought would be not be acceptable for public viewing.

    Thank you very much for the comment, I appreciate making me think about it from a different angle. Also up in the top of the post I wrote what I would have said. Thanks!

  8. Just checking in on the possibility that your daughter’s spelling teach may be Bob Knight?

    No, well even if it was, that’s an awful thing to say. Have you spoken to the teacher about the note?

    (You could try replying with something like “Why are you so afraid of handwriting?”)

  9. Your daughter with the critical teacher is lucky this year because she is getting a taste of the real world. Let’s face it Paul, your daughter has been blessed to have been born into the wonderful family that she has been born into. With all of the other advantages she has, she can handle this situation.

    Do you really want to pave out a perfectly smooth path for her throughout her formative years? Is that a picture of what the real world is like? How will she be prepared for the real world if she never bumps into an unreasonable authority figure? Truth is, they are everywhere. (I tend to meet them after disregarding traffic laws.)

    However, we are in a unique situation here because you are both a parent and a teacher, and a great deal of what you point out has to do with which role you are coming from.

    If you are being a parent, ever vigilant for the well being of your child, you should check out Dr. Charles Fay’s article, “My Teacher is Mean” to understand what the heck I’m talking about here.

    But if you are being a teacher, observing the actions of a fellow educator and questioning the value of the techniques being used, that is another story. Charles Fay would never recommend anger, threats or intimidation as a way to gain control in a class. He describes how to “Turn Your Word Into Gold” by using enforceable statements.

    With this approach if a teacher wants better handwriting, instead of saying “Your handwriting is terrible” it would be better to smile and say something like “I grade papers with handwriting I can read.”

    It’s not always easy, especially when we know a better way to do things, but when it comes to our kids’ teachers, we typically need to present a unified front. Too many parents these days are willing to question a teacher’s methods, even going to battle with them, right in front of the kids. Is it any wonder then that we have classrooms full of entitled, disrespectful kids?

    1. I want my daughter to be challenged, not put down. Something as simple as handwriting affects all subjects. As soon as she hesitates to write because of the reaction it gets from her teacher her learning suffers–stressed brains can’t learn.

      I think adults also tend to look at situations like this with adult eyes, with our skills, with our wisdom of it it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger. The problem is that this is not an isolated event in schools–it can happen every day in every class. If it was an isolated event in school this post would have never been written. Imagine Bill if everyday someone came onto your blog and said “Your blog is terrible.” Everyday…and they were people that you look up to for guidance and spirit. To put you in the shoes of some kids imagine everyday for 14 years.
      I wonder if kids who grow up with lots of support and no mean words, are not just more likely to “deal” with the “real” world, but also more likely to change it.

  10. I remember growing up and complaining to my dad about various teachers and the treatment I perceived that was unfair or injurious. I don’t recall a single time that my dad ever sided with me in any dispute with a teacher. There were times that I felt it was poor old me against the teachers, the folks and sometimes indeed the world.

    As a professional educator and school administrator, Dad really understood the importance of my learning respect for authority, right or wrong. Now that I’m an adult and educator myself, I can look back on those days and realize that almost certainly there were times my father felt the teacher was clearly in the wrong, but he would never compromise that teacher’s authority in my eyes by sharing that position with me. He may very well have spoken directly with my teacher on some of these issues, without my knowledge. But from my kid perspective, the teacher was always in charge, and I’d just better suck it up and do what they asked me to.

    I guess the main question is if the teacher in question is truly a mean-spirited jerk, continually demeaning where even the most bright & upstanding kids have trouble achieving. If that’s the case that teacher should probably be removed.

    If it is not the case, and more of a case of poor choice of words, lack of skills, etc. then maybe there is hope that teacher can still grow, improve and learn. But you would have to be inside of their sphere of influence to have anything to do about that change.

    May I ask how you responded, besides writing about it here. (It does make for a good discussion, doesn’t it?)

    Did you say anything to your daughter? If so, what role did you play- Helicopter, Drill Sergeant or Consultant? In other words did you rescue?– I’m going down to that school and talk with that teacher today! Or give orders– “You tell your teacher that she’s not supposed to talk to you that way” or even “Just ignore it” Or did you provide empathetic consultation– “Wow honey, that’s too bad the teacher got on you about your writing. I’ll bet that felt bad, especially when you did so well on the test. What are you going to do?”

    Just curious how you did handle it, and if you think you handled it well?

  11. Wow Mr. B, that was deep 🙂
    You know I still remember what my 5th grade teacher said to be once… “Karen your reading is the worst for someone your age, you better work on that beacuse you reaad like a tird grader.” I was mad at him for saying that (although it was true :)) the first thing that came to my head was, “prove him wrong.” I did, last year I read the Scarlett Letter, and understood a little bit of what they were saying.

    one of the teacher, when I was going into 8th grade, he said that I was not the type to make honor roll every term, like my sister, all I wanted to do was say you’re wrong, but I had to prove it first.
    I think that the more people tell you that you are bad at something the more u just wants to rub it in their face when you turn out to be good.

    The Yankees won the World Series, not many people liked that but I thought that this saying, that my friend said I face book mint a little more…. “You should love the Yankees. Because whenever you do something (even if it’s the first time you’ve ever done it) you kick every ones butt at it. You are a Yankee”

  12. I appreciate this post because it reminds me to be conscious of how I use my words, but what I would really appreciate is some examples of how to use my words to lift them up. Because, honestly, I have tried but I can’t seem to find the right combination.

    How many ways can I say, please put away your cell phone or stop cursing at your classmates, or stop throwing things at each other? Its not as though I have the worst classroom management but its the same little problems that keep coming up. If you have a suggestion of a way to say these things in a way that will not be punitive, I would welcome the suggestions. Or a further explanation of that marble system you mentioned…


  13. Dear Karen,

    Parents and educators fall into a trap when we tell kids what to do because honestly, we can’t “make them” do anything. All we can really do is control what we are going to do.

    Anger, threats and intimidation ultimately don’t work for the reasons you describe. The same old behaviors crop up because we give them an entertaining show when they do. We have to figure out ways to encourage cooperation by suggesting what we are going to do, and what we are going to do might not be in their best interest. Jim Fay calls this the enforceable statement.

    With the cell phones, you could get the BlendTec commercial blender. You could say with a smile, I really like to test out my new blender on all cell phones that I see in my classroom.

    Of course if you ever really wanted to do something so unforgettable, so crazy, you would want to be certain to have all of the holes plugged, like prior administrator and parental approval, so maybe this one isn’t such a great idea.

    But the main point is that instead of telling them what to do, tell them what you will do instead.

    When I hear profanity, it really inspires me to assign extra homework, give extra quizzes, etc.

    Make sense?

  14. This post takes me back to when I was a kid and people made fun of me. The words that were said do bring back bad memories of my middle school days. I doesn’t bother me now as I am adult but I remember when those words did hurt.

    As a teacher now I try to build a strong communittee into my classroom. Where we do different activities at the beginning of the year and throughout the year to build trust and friendship throughout my classroom and grade level. This seems to help my students. I now only wish that adults at the school would be more professional. We as teachers need to watch our words and be positive role models to this students.

  15. Thank you for your story about your children. I am always very cautious about what I say to my second graders, because I want them to know years down the road that I believed in them even when they were struggling. Children want to feel valued and want to feel that someone cares about them. Teachers should take those teachable moments and make them positive learning experiences.

  16. Wow great story. I hear all the time by adults, ” Does it really matter what happened is school, when it comes to “real” life?” And my response is always yes! There are people in their 40’s and 50’s still struggling with events that happened to them in their impressionable time of lives, which usually occur in schooling. What we stay to students has the potential of staying with them forever. That is a lot of pressure for teachers that should not be taken lightly. We should be the models of morality. What it means to be successful, caring, and intelligent. Many times I have visited classrooms that were scary and oppressive. I was in a first grade classroom a year ago which happened to have a substitute. She was mean! There was a table of four little girls that just looked terrified the entire time I was in there. All I could think about was my little girl and praying she would never be put into a helpless situation without me there as her advocate. Teachers need to remember we are dealing with children, young impressionable minds. We need to be kind, that is what we would want for our on loved ones.

  17. Beth,

    After reading your post, I can help but agree with what you were saying about subs. How they can be mean. There was a sub the other day that was teaching in a 2nd grade classroom. One of the students asked to use the restroom. The sub said to her “Can you?” like trying to joke with the girl. Of course the little girl didn’t understand the question. The sub continued to ask her if she “Can”. The sub finally let her go after the little girl started to cry. After I saw that I had to say something to the sub. I tried to be respective, but it was so hard for me to bite my tongue.

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