A good principal must be many things, but first and foremost, s/he must be an effective communicator. Language is powerful; when we use it the right way, our words can instruct, inspire and strengthen our relationships with students, parents and teachers. Conversely, when we misuse language, we can stifle and even derail relationships. To help you have better conversations, we’d like to share a few communication tips from Robert Ramsey’s book, How to Say the Right Thing Every Time: Communicating Well With Students, Staff, Parents, and the Public.
There’s a thin line between teaching and pontificating; when we cross it, kids tune out.
There are a few reasons why adults should think twice before throwing around the latest teen colloquialisms: First, adults sound ridiculous and disingenuous when they try to sound like their students. Second, “slanguage” is in constant flux, so chances are that what you think means one thing actually means another. Third, trying to sound hip doesn’t work. We are adults and should speak as such.
Jargon is flip-side of “slanguage.” Most of us have quite a few years on our students. We’ve had more time to read, listen and experience language than they have. As a result, some of us make the mistake of flaunting our vocabulary, using big words and phrases that alienate and belittle students.
Beating around the bush
Our culture uses a lot of double-talk: We say one thing out of politeness (“No, let me pay for it” or “You really shouldn’t have gotten me that”) but actually mean the opposite. Younger students don’t understand these nuances. Avoid them and just say what you mean.
Profanity usually gets a chuckle out of students and has shock value, but accomplishes little beyond that.
Using vague language
Very often what looks like student resistance is actually confusion about our vague requests. Consider the difference between the following:
- “Will you try harder to pay attention in class?”
- “During class, I want you to keep your head off the desk, keep your eyes open and on me, and have all of your materials out on the desk.”
You’ll notice how the former not only lacks specific instructions, but does not give the student a clear picture of what you expect from him or her. Always give your students concrete steps for making the investment.
Telling students that they are “really smart”
We’ve all encountered students who, no matter what we do, refuse to apply themselves. We know that they’re perfectly capable of meeting (and exceeding) our expectations, so we pull them aside and say, “Joe, I know you’re smart and you can do well. All you have to do is apply yourself.” When we do this, certainly our hearts are in the right place, but telling students they are smart actually lowers their motivation and achievement.