By Dr. Teresa González
“We’ll split in two groups,” the teacher said, “we can do it by birthday months, or we can try other ways if there are suggestions.” When someone suggested that there could be a group of boys and a group of girls, the teacher politely encouraged her class to think of suggestions that were inclusive for all. Students came up with ideas such as dividing the class in Tigres and Rayados, curly and straight hair, above or below a certain age or height, and they even had fun in the process. Working with adolescents, this made me think about things we say that may not be inclusive. I started to pay attention and realized how common it is to pass judgment, inadvertently make a mean comment about things that do not fit what we have internalized as the norm, or ignore and even smile at microaggressions.
As a parent, I strongly believe that the way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice and shapes the way they interact with others. Therefore, we must be mindful of the words we use not only to refer to our children but also when making statements about others. This is true for all significant adults in a child’s life, so teachers’ words are in a way shaping students’ minds, the world, and the future. We must stop and think about the impact our words have when we label something or someone based on mistaken beliefs, stereotypes, or assumed generalizations.
Imagine that there is a child displaying atypical behaviors in a classroom, and the teacher says something like “she doesn’t behave like a normal six year old.” Some of those hearing this statement will then view there is something abnormal about that child, even herself. If the statement was shared with colleagues, these teachers’ expectations and the way they interact with the child would be indicative of their belief, and that belief would be transferred to other students in that class.
The way teachers respond to students’ statements shapes minds and behaviors. How do we respond to a child who feels incompetent after repeated academic failure, or to the one who says she was not born for school or Math? What do we do when a boy tells another one he’s running like a girl, or when one refers to other using the word gay as a derogatory term? How do we react when a student says another one is bipolar because they demonstrate their feelings, or when one uses a nickname that refers to someone’s body size? Turning a blind eye on such behaviors demonstrates implicit approval, agreement and support. It normalizes aggression as a way to interact with each other.
Everyone’s sense of self is vulnerable, and while some people are more confident than others, we have the power to build or crush those whom we encounter. The words we utter, the tone we use, the beliefs behind our words, our intentions, and how we interact with others empowers them by building their self esteem, or takes something from them by crushing their spirit.
Every social interaction is an opportunity to make others feel valuable. When we pass judgement, this opportunity turns into taking someone’s dignity from them. Every single day, we are blessed with various opportunities to use the power of communication to build each other, to shape a more accepting reality, to be inclusive. We can decide to treat everyone with dignity and respect or to misuse this power. As Spiderman’s uncle stated: “with great power comes great responsibility...” How will we use this power? Will we build others up, or will we crush their sense of self?