The Whiteboard

Speak Life

Positively impact your captive audience.

Educators talk all day long. We talk to our students. We talk to their families. We talk to our colleagues. We talk…all…day…long. 

Have you ever considered that all of this talking could be an opportunity to speak words of life and positively impact the identities of our students, their families, and our colleagues? 

However, we all know that consistently speaking life and staying positive is not always easy, especially when faced with challenging individuals and scenarios. Yet, I’ve discovered it is possible. Throughout my years as an educator, I have learned to rely on these six principles to help me use my words as a powerful tool for good: 

1. Start with a positive. I have found that beginning a difficult conversation with a positive statement sets the tone for the interaction and can help the other person feel more receptive to any constructive input that might follow. 

As a school counselor, I frequently worked with a teacher who was often assigned behaviorally challenging students (mainly because she was able to handle them well). But, I could tell that working with these students was hard on her because she always seemed stressed. So, whenever we talked, I made a point to begin our conversations with something positive (such as complimenting her patience level or the calming effect of her voice). As I continued this practice, our interactions became more comfortable and more productive. And, she seemed less stressed. My positive words served as a simple reminder of what she was doing right, providing her with a refreshing and encouraging boost.  

2. Treat everyone with respect. Over the years, my policy of treating everyone with respect, in both words and demeanor, helped me develop excellent partnerships, even with the most difficult families. 

It was rumored that one of the families I often dealt with lived in a house with a dirt floor. Both of the parents had either mental or physical disabilities, and some of their children had IEPs. Over time, I got to know the parents while visiting their home, helping them understand and fill out school-related forms and documents, and connecting them with useful services. I learned that they got the most important things right—they loved their children and were doing the best that they could to help them. I was able to dispel the rumor about the dirt floors in their home and model a respectful stance in dealing with them for others in our school community. Even though I am retired, we still regard each other as valued friends. 

3. Avoid Gossip. I learned early on that people do not trust those who speak negatively about others. 

I remember the day my colleague asked me to pray for her. She was in a very delicate situation and desperately needed confidential support. I believe my colleague entrusted me with her very difficult personal situation, in part, because I had refrained from publicly judging or talking negatively about others. Since she felt safe coming to me, I had the opportunity to pray with her and confidentially provide a referral for professional help. If I had gossiped and spoken against others, I probably would not have been able to help my coworker. 

4. Clean the slate daily. Having spent decades interacting with the most troubled children in our school system, I learned to treat my students the way God treats me, viewing each day as a fresh start, regardless of my students’ past behaviors. 

I frequently interacted with a student who tended to trash his classroom when upset, scaring his classmates and leaving his teacher in tears. But, my colleagues and I believed the best in him regardless of his misbehavior. We did not bring up his past mistakes. Instead, we helped him gain the skills he needed to make better choices and praised him for what he was doing right. Thanks to the unconditional support from school staff and caring parents, he now has a reputable job and has grown to be a helpful, respectful, and content young man.

5. Find Common Ground. One of the best ways to deal with angry students, parents, and coworkers is to find common ground early on in a conversation. 

I once received a phone call from an outspoken parent who had complaints about the mask mandate imposed on our students. When she loudly stated her opinion, I calmly replied that I, too, felt apprehensive about young children having to wear masks, and I sympathized with her about how hot and uncomfortable they were. My agreement de-escalated her mood, allowing me to explain that educators did not have the power to change the mandate. I then suggested that together we could brainstorm ways to help her little girl adapt, such as finding the softest, lightest mask or using a shield instead. Because of my approach, she saw me as someone partnering with her to solve a problem, instead of as an adversary. 

6. Cultivate the possible. My favorite part of teaching was my ability to inspire students by speaking to them about their potential. 

I spent quite a bit of time with a foster child who had endured neglect and abandonment in his young life. As a result, sometimes he got frustrated or acted out in class. One day during our time together, I asked him if he would show me his drawings. I discovered that he was gifted in art. I encouraged him that his developing talent and good attitude would enable him to reach his dreams of becoming an artist. I decided to buy him a nice sketch pad and art pencils and consult with our art teacher, who made arrangements for him to get some extra lessons from the high school art teacher. Lately, whenever I see him on days I am substitute teaching, he has a smile on his face and enjoys showing me the new drawings in his notebook.

Sally Newton recently retired as an elementary school counselor after spending the last 23 years at Smethport Area School District. Sally lives in North-Central PA, where she enjoys spending time with family outdoors and packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. 


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