It might sound strange, but as a teacher I’ve “learned” more than I’ve “taught.” The children at my preschool have taught me about respect and curiosity and beauty. They’ve shown me how to love big and embrace each day for its own sake. They instruct, through their very essence, the inexplicable dance of being vulnerable and strong all at the same time. These are just a few of the things I’ve learned from the children. But there is one lesson I want to share in depth, because it has changed my life.
It’s called: Use your words. We ask children to “use their words” all the time, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. Their problems seem so simple to us: Who had the spoon first? Who gets to be which character in the game? What game are we going to play? As adults we think “How simple. I wish my problems were this easy.” We wonder what the hair pulling, name calling, and pushing people out of line is all about and how long it will be until they grow out of it.
The formula for “using your words” at our school is pretty straightforward:
1.Each person gets a chance to say what they want.
2.Each person gets to say how they’re feeling about the situation.
3.Everyone involved works together to find a resolution to which they can all agree.
I wish I could tell you that once I learned how to help children resolve their arguments, I immediately saw how applicable the system was to my own life. That would have been the adult thing to do. I’m sorry to tell you that it took many years of encouraging children to “use their words” before I found the courage to use my own. The awareness took me by surprise, one day, when I felt upset with another adult in my life. My mind started spinning about how wrong they were and it began scheming ways to make sure the other person knew how upset I was without, you know, actually having to tell them how upset I was.
Then, an idea hit me like a hula hoop hurtling back to earth: “What if I just tell them what I’m upset about?” On the surface it sounds good. It makes perfect sense. But pretty soon another voice sprang to mind, warning against those words I wanted to use: What if I say what I think and the other person thinks I’m stupid? What if I tell them how I’m feeling and they get angry? The “what ifs” of fear spiraled toward the horizon and I suddenly realized how hard “using your words” actually is in practice. Telling your truth can be terrifying, especially when it causes you to disagree with other people. How many of us try to “suck it up” or keep to ourselves just to make our lives easier? How often do you tell the truth about little things, but hide the things that are really bothering you behind a wall? Do you ever hide those truths from yourself?
It’s not so simple at all. Once I started “using my words” as a practice, not just as a teacher but also as a mother and partner and daughter and friend, I found a new kind of courage. I saw the beauty of people speaking from their unique place. I understood the importance of each person becoming vulnerable enough to reveal their truth so we could all be a little stronger together.
Whenever possible, (i.e. when I find my courage instead of fear) I use my words now. But I’ll never again think “using your words” is a simple activity. It is brave. It is important. And every day I see a child practicing, a little person who just found words a year ago and is already speaking their truth, I grow a little along with them.
And I would like to say “Thank you”.
(This post was excerpted from an article written for the Open Door School newsletter “Open Doorways.”)