The Answer To Communicating Across Party Lines? Find Your “Teacher Voice”

There has never been a time when I have been more grateful for my experience teaching. I learned to talk to a hundred different types of people — students, parents, teachers, administrators, you name it. Shit was not easy. But I would argue that lack of appropriate communication is one of the largest downfalls of our country right now. I would also argue that there is no better way to learn how to communicate than by finding your teacher voice.

Note: A teacher voice is not a condescending voice. It is not a pandering voice. It is not an overbearing ‘intellectual’ voice. It is not an authoritarian voice. It has zero ego. A teacher voice is one that shows mutual respect for you as well as for the information it’s trying to convey.  

Maybe you’ve never had a teacher like that. If not, I am truly sorry. Having an ego-ridden teacher is a tough pill to swallow.

I will tell you right now, if you want a high school student to hear you, the first step is proving that you are willing to hear them. They will not internalize a word that you say until they feel that you respect their struggle and have their best interests in mind. I taught math for two years at a boarding school and I quickly found that my focus didn’t solely lie on the correctness of the material that I was teaching, but how I was communicating it.

If any student in my classroom felt they were being looked down on for their lack of knowledge, they would turn off immediately. It didn’t matter that I knew what I was talking about. It didn’t matter what the book said. Hell, it REALLY didn’t matter if I was right for coming down on them. I had zero success when my ego showed up. Was my ego in the back of my throat 90 percent of the time? Sure. But suppression of that ego is what made me a (don’t mind if I say) successful teacher. I wasn’t always great at this, but fuck if I didn’t try.

I once had a student try to derail the class by insisting that 1 + 1 did not in fact equal 2. You may have seen this argument laid out online, or maybe a quirky math teacher brought it up once in one of your classes. There are lots of “proofs” like this in the world. Someone used a similar proof once to state that everyone in Canada was the same age. Alternative facts, if you will. All of these proofs have similar fallacies — some easier to spot than others.

This student wasn’t trying to fuck with me. He was trying to be heard, specifically in a place where he felt he hadn’t ever had a voice (a math classroom). So I, through my very internal frustration, chose to hear him. I choked down my ego. I asked him, with a full heart, to show me the problem at hand.

It was clear he wasn’t expecting this response.

We walked through it after class, in depth. I asked him pointed questions – not questions to ridicule, but sincere questions about each step of the proof. He then began to ask me questions. Eventually we found the fallacy together.

Was that worth time? I’d argue yes — it opened up our line of communication. If anything, he learned he had a voice. That someone was willing to take him seriously, even if he wasn’t being serious. He realized there was nothing weak about asking a question. I learned that there was strength in holding my tongue. In pausing when I felt fed up. I learned that my tone made all the difference. I’ve held on to this interaction ever since. I hope he has too, honestly. He was a strong presence in class ever after, at the very least.

Is this idealistic? Yes! Absolutely. This was an IDEAL situation. There have been many moments where I approached a problem with a student with a full heart only to be shut out nonetheless. My small amount of experience, however, has shown me that my full heart usually didn’t go unnoticed. I may have felt a kick-back in the moment, but my lack of shittiness at the time was appreciated and noted later on down the line. If I ever succumbed to shittiness, that was noted too. I’m sure you’ve all had experiences like this, on either end of the spectrum.

No matter what someone is trying to get across, if they show respect for your feelings while doing so, that shit sticks. 

So if you want to bring this into your day-to-day, let me first note: racism is real. Sexism is real. Xenophobia, homophobia, climate change denials. All of this is real. They are horrifying concerns, especially right now. There is absolutely a fight to be fought. I’m not asking anyone to ignore these facets in order to have a cushy conversation. What I will say is that these things sometimes show up as knee jerk reactions when someone has entered a conversation that they’re uncomfortable with or don’t fully understand. I am not excusing it. But we need to find a productive way of addressing it.

That being said, hate exists.

Anyone throwing blind, offensive, and clearly thoughtless epithets at you isn’t trying to converse. They aren’t trying to learn. Don’t give them your heart or your time or your fire.

People also have feelings, goddammit. When people express their fear of living in this country right now — fear of their rights disappearing, for their safety, for their livelihoods, fear for their friends — this isn’t people being fucking “snowflakes.” It’s people directly facing and stating their discomfort, and despite what you may think, this means they have a mighty backbone. Sure, maybe some people need to grow some thicker skin, or maybe you think their fear is misplaced. But if your response is to rip into someone for sounding too soft or whiny without providing them with an answer or an ear to their worry, you’re dismissing their experience and shutting down their reality. Their REALITY.

Never fuck with someone else’s reality.

My point through all of this is, drop all assumptions before you start expressing yourself. We are all teachers in our own way. We are teaching the world our point of view every time we speak.

We all have that itch — the itch of the ego — to take someone down on Facebook or Twitter or whatever the fuck. It is so easy to scratch that stupid goddamn’d itch. I take part more than I’d like to admit. But the more you scratch the sooner you’ll have a gaping wound to deal with.

It’s OKAY to not understand something. Be honest about it. It’s OKAY to overstep. Listen when someone points it out to you. It’s OKAY to be passionate. Don’t let your passion blind you. None of us are perfect. We have emotions, we have biases, we have personal histories, we have egos. We can be quick to the draw. So much of the current administration is benefiting from us tearing each other down every single time some one voices an opinion. Some opinions are truly rooted in hate – don’t let this derail you. Many aren’t, and we need to remember this if we ever want to have a productive conversation again.

Take a beat, play the tone out in your head, and ask yourself if anyone will actually be capable of hearing the message you’re trying to get across. If not, then find a different way to say it. Address everyone as a peer. We are peers. If you can’t find a way to express something with a full heart, give yourself a minute and recalibrate. Don’t tip toe, but find your teacher voice.

Because if what you’re saying is not hearable…. then really, what’s the point?

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