Teacher Talk

You don’t need a calendar to know that school is back in session. Campuses across the country are freshly manicured, halls are scrubbed, and even the trees are getting all dressed up. Counting students, parents, educators, support staff, and you and me, one out of every four persons in America left for school this morning, but not everyone was in the same state of mind. Some couldn’t wait. Others, as Shakespeare noted, left “like the whining school-boy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail, unwillingly to school.”

Long before the sun peaked over the horizon this morning, millions of moms and sleepy children were deeply involved in the morning rituals of an ordinary school day. Between the oatmeal, the whining, and the bus stop, there were lots of opportunities for good parenting, and most took full advantage of these teachable moments. Making the case for school for these moms and dads is usually not a hard sell. Unfortunately, for some parents in other circumstances, mornings can be a difficult time. Bad days may begin early for these families. Getting their children to go gladly to a place where they are systematically measured and compared—often unfavorably in contrast to their more affluent classmates—can be a real chore. But when they show up, these children can be highly responsive to the teacher—more than any of us know.

The young sons and daughters of America’s poor tend to believe what the teacher says (both the good stuff and the bad) perhaps more than their car-riding peers. To survive, these children have had to learn to listen with their eyes more than their ears. For them, the teacher’s confidence in their ability comes through loud and clear. They get it. Every school day, the opinions of the professionally licensed adults in school bend these tender branches in one direction or another. An understanding nod here, an encouraging wink there can communicate an acceptance that transcends words. “Turn to page 57” can be said as an invitation to learning or as a clear signal that some are not welcomed. They “hear” what their teacher didn’t say.

What you say really does matter, but how you say it may matter more. Teachers who understand their influential role and challenge students with dignity, grace, and compassion can make school a place that’s easier to come to on a crisp fall morning. As a parent, I can tell you that those in charge of making the oatmeal in the mornings will appreciate your attention to that detail. A slight change in your tone can indeed make mornings a bit brighter for all of us and make some amazing futures possible. Then maybe the whining can be focused where it belongs: complaining about the pulp in the orange juice.


Gary Riggins is the director of graduate studies in education at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.