This election season has proven divisive among Americans, creating deep wounds from the words that have been used. The rift between groups in America are not going to heal just because the election is over with and it will take time for the nation to recover. Now consider how this election season has affected your students. They have surely felt the impact of the negative rhetoric. Have you addressed this in your classes? More importantly, have you considered how your words as an educator influences your students and their worldview?

What you say and what you do as an educator shapes how your students view the world, how they participate in the learning process, and more importantly, your words have a direct impact on their level of motivation, determination, and persistence. Do you know the power you have given to your words right now?

As you reflect upon your work in the classroom, along with interactions you have with your students, do your words reflect what you see in your class, what you believe as a person, or what you hope your students will accomplish? While it may not seem possible to make a distinction between these perspectives, there is a difference as we all hold one primary lens through which we view our students. And during a volatile time, especially when emotions are running high, it may be difficult to override personal feelings while interacting with our students.

Now more than ever is a time to reevaluate the words we use in higher education. We can either give those words the power of influence and inclusion, or we can leave them unfiltered and create division, separation, and feelings of discouragement. What I want to share with you are strategies you can use to self-assess how you communicate with students, which I have also utilized now during a time when so many students may be feeling uncertainty or fearful about the future of our country.

Words Create Worlds

The Center for Appreciative Inquiry coined a phrase, Words Creates Worlds, and this acknowledges the influence our words can have on us and others. How do we realize the impact of our words? When there is a large-scale event, such as an election, it shows us the multiple realities that exist as people share their view of candidates and our nation. In a college classroom, words create worlds during interactions with each other – especially during class discussions. Those words are felt and internalized within the spirit of our students. Regardless of where they begin academically, or where they are at now academically, every student can continue to grow and develop. Yet an instructor can cause that spirit to flourish or become diminished based upon the words that are used.

As an instructor, consider the impact of your own views. As you read or hear the news you are going to process that information through filters you’ve created, which includes biases and opinions. If something negative has been reported, you will process it through these filters; and it may influence your worldview. The challenge is preventing negativity from influencing how you see your students and remaining neutral regardless of the rhetoric used. While you are in the classroom it is vital to remain open-minded, see individuals as people rather than groups, and remain objective and rational (rather than subjective and emotional) – if you are going to create a welcoming atmosphere.

The Connection to Learning

Learning involves more than what goes on in the classroom. It is much more than the process of reading a textbook and memorizing information for an exam. Instead, the learning process centers on what occurs in the mind as it is a cognitive activity. Cognition involves the mind receiving input, processing it, and producing some form of output. The input is the subject matter, the context provided, the instructions or criteria stated for completing the required learning activities. Cognitive processing occurs when effort is applied, energy is expended, creativity is initiated, and the intellect is engaged. The output consists of thoughts, ideas, analyses, written papers, plans, etc.

However, it is important to consider that the mind is not a machine and is influenced by feelings and emotional reactions. As students are involved in the class, they may experience negative emotions or reactions. A common emotion that students experience while working on assignments is frustration. This in turn influences and often disrupts the cognitive process, and it may discourage their creativity or reduce the effort they put into an assignment. In contrast, if students experience positive emotions and feelings while interacting with the class and their instructor – they may feel encouraged to put in more effort and become more creative.

Here is an example: An instructor hears negative rhetoric about a particular group of people on the news and through internalization of words heard, this instructor develops negative feelings about that group of people. Once in the classroom the instructor sees students who are part of this group that they hold negative feelings about and are unable to remain unbiased as they interact with those students. It is very likely that the words used while communicating with those students will then reflect that negative view, which can cause those students to feel diminished in some manner.

The Power of Your Words

When students begin a class, they have varying degrees of academic preparedness, willingness to participate, and readiness to learn. Even while they are engaged in the learning process they may have varying levels of motivation. This is where an instructor’s words can have the greatest power by shaping the disposition of your students. What I am referring to are not just the words used while presenting a lecture or answering questions during class time. These are the words used to communicate and interact with your students. For example, I have seen the most academically under-prepared students excel in many ways when it is not seemingly possible – if they have been surrounded by powerful and encouraging words. The words of an instructor create the views and perspectives that our students have about learning and their school.

How to Self-Assess Your Words

Below are some questions that you can use to self-assess your disposition, attitude, and mindset as a means of discovering what influences the words you use.

Diversity, Equality: Do you view all students as being equal, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, and other characteristics used to classify individuals? Do you believe that every student has potential, or will only the academically prepared students succeed? What words do you use to describe the characteristics of your students?

Individuality: Do you see your class as one group of students or do you see individual students with unique characteristics? Here is an example: “I have Caucasians in my class” versus “John and Emily are in my class” – which one would you choose? In addition, how do you describe your students? For example, do you use words like “they” or do you refer to students individually (he/she)?

Request for Assistance: When you receive a request for assistance, what is your initial reaction? For example, do you feel happy that a student has asked for help or do you feel a sense of dread? Does the student who asked the question make a difference with regards to how you feel? You will find that how you perceive the request will influence the words you use when you respond.

Class Disposition: Do you see your class as being energized right now? Or do you see students as wanting to get through the class as quickly as they possibly can? Do your students have a positive or negative attitude about learning? In other words, do you believe that the class has a collective mood? How you see your class will have a definite impact on the words you choose when you interact with them.

These self-assessment questions will allow you to gauge what you experience and feel, which in turn will help you determine what influences the words you use while you are working and interacting with your students. Your disposition, attitude, and worldview all give power to your words, either in a positive or negative manner, and those words can either bolster or diminish the spirit of your students. I have learned that even the most seemingly casual conversation can have a direct impact on how students feel, perform, and respond to class conditions. You can cultivate words with a positive impact if you are willing to set aside your own biases and look for the best in each and every student. This disposition will help you choose words that sustain your students and encourage them to persist – even when they feel challenged.