Caring Communication

Once on a field trip I heard a group of children discussing where they were born. “Jay was born in Miami,” Samantha announced. To which Jamie responded, “Come on, was Jay really born in ‘her ami’?”

Once on a field trip I heard a group of children discussing where they were born. “Jay was born in Miami,” Samantha announced. To which Jamie responded, “Come on, was Jay really born in ‘her ami’?”

This story illustrates with delightful humor the communication chaos sometimes created with language. Communication skills are essential for treasured teachers; children frequently do not have a complete grasp of the language, and many words are confusing to them. Because they are such multisensory learners, they are often “hearing” us on many levels.

Let’s examine some of the basic principles of communicating with our learners.

As teachers, we have the opportunity to communicate with our students on a variety of subjects in a variety of ways. The first law of medicine, it has been said, is “First do no harm.” We would be wise to adopt this as a strategy for communicating with our learners. We want every encounter with a learner to speak of God’s love, for without that we are no more than a “clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Love is the glue that bonds us (and our teaching) to our students. God’s love gives us grace to love children even when tough situations leave us feeling anything but loving.

We need to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus say?” Sometimes the wisest thing to say is nothing at all until we feel the Lord’s leading. Many times I have prayed to “put a muzzle on my mouth” (Psalm 39:1) until I felt the Lord leading me to speak. I have learned that my mouth will often get me into trouble! Jesus made every word count in His teaching. He spoke with wisdom, clarity, and love. We need to make sure that we follow His leading in all our communication.

A Christian is…
A mind
Through which Christ thinks
A voice
Through which Christ speaks
A heart
Through which Christ loves
A hand
Through which Christ helps.

I challenge you to put your teaching on a tape recorder or have someone listen to you teach in class and give an honest appraisal of your communication. We are often unaware of simple things that muddy our ability to be effective communicators. For example, at one point I worked to eliminate the “you knows” from my speaking. A year later, as I listened to a tape of myself, I was amazed at all the “you knows” that had slipped in despite my efforts.

Of course, this wasn’t a major communication flaw – simply an annoying one. But if harmless flaws can creep in, it is safe to assume that more destructive ones can as well. We all have sloppy verbiage in our memory banks that we are not aware of consciously. Sometimes these words come out unconsciously or when we’re under pressure.

An important thing to notice is how much our tone of voice impacts our message. We may find that we take a tone with students that we’d never use to address adults. That’s fine if we’re teaching in the early childhood department, where many of us slip into what psychologists term “mother-ese.” This language – most often used by mothers with their young children – is an effective tool for teaching language and communicating nurture to the little guys. But if we are using it when we teach fifth graders, we are sure to alienate our students.

Teachers are a walking “show and tell,” and children are born mimics. They observe and emulate what they see modeled for them. If we are using a demanding tone of voice, chances are that our students will mimic that. I have seen repeatedly that gentle, quiet teachers tend to have students who speak more softly in the classroom. Children often live up or down to our expectations of them.

Furthermore, because children think in concrete terms, we must be careful not to use words that conjure up images we don’t want to communicate. Once, while discussing with a class how we are to give our hearts to God for His service, a teacher asked the children what they would like to give to God.

“A knife,” one child promptly responded.

Knowing this child to be a deep thinker, the teacher asked, “Why a knife?”

“So He can cut a hole through the clouds to see me better” was the response. Never underestimate the power of a child’s logic!

Many words in our English language can be confusing, especially to the concrete thinking of a child. Have you ever noticed that when you sing “Our God reigns…” every child in the room looks out to see if God is really “raining” or not? Once we sang a song in chapel with the words, “The presence of God watches over me.” Upon leaving the chapel, one little guy asked when he was going to get his “present” from God – “you know, the ‘watch’ we sang about.” Another time, a child described Promotion Sunday as “commotion Sunday,” and most of the teachers agreed. Yes, words can be confusing!

Words can build bridges to understanding, or they can create walls that keep us from that understanding. In his book Teaching to Change Lives, Dr. Howard Hendricks writes, “The word ‘communication’ comes from the Latin word communis, meaning ‘common.’ Before we can communicate, we must establish commonness, commonality. And the greater the commonality, the greater the potential for communication.”

Too often, however, we fail to consider how to communicate “in common” with our students. We tend to use many figurative terms as we discuss important spiritual issues, leaving our kids behind in the dust. We need to rethink our language as a child might interpret it and talk in a way that is common to both teachers and students.

For some children, our words don’t communicate at all. A child visiting her grandparents attended church for the first time. After the service, her grandfather asked her what the sermon was about. “I don’t know, Grandpa,” she answered. “He didn’t say.” A lot of us may be talking but not saying anything!

The same can be true as we read or memorize Scripture. Most Bible translations surpass children’s listening vocabularies, which are more advanced than their sight vocabularies. The most simplified full-text Bible is written at about the same reading level as a newspaper – somewhere around the sixth grade level. Does that mean children can’t understand the Scriptures? Hardly! It just means that we have to take care that children don’t substitute familiar meanings for unfamiliar words. If children form these misconceptions on their own, they can come up with huge gaps on which they base further misunderstandings, sort of like building a house upon the sand.

These misconceptions become ingrained and are difficult to shake, even when children discover evidence that contradicts their thinking. To this day, I still get a visual image of an animal parade when we sing “Lead On, O King Eternal,” which I was told by one imaginative child sounded like “Lead On, O Kingly Turtle”!