Words Can Hurt; Words Can Heal

Author: Aubrey
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A couple of years ago, somebody made a comment comparing my cello playing to my violin playing. I didn’t think anything of it at the time – I am a violinist, and play cello as secondary instrument. I am nowhere near as skilled or as comfortable playing cello, and it didn’t surprise me when this person alluded to that!

Fast forward a couple of years, and I realized that I was feeling significant anxiety around playing cello in certain environments (especially on worship team at church).

This weekend, as I was preparing to do just that, I said something at practice about not being very confident on cello. And was met with this response: “Well, we’re all confident in your cello skills!” I was amazed at how much that single comment made me relax. 

As I reflect, I wonder, did I let an offhand comment, said innocently, grow into a cloud of doubt about my own musical skills? I want to be clear – I don’t blame the person who originally said it to me – it was a completely fair assessment! But something about it affected me far more than intended.

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How do words our students? I was fascinated when I was reading a book by Brene Brown, and she shared, “When I started the research on shame, you know, 13 years ago, I found that 85% of the men and women who I interviewed remembered an event in school that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. But wait – this is good – fifty percent of that 85% percent, half of those people: those shame wounds were around creativity. So fifty percent of those people have art scars. Have creativity scars.
(TBH, I don’t remember which book I first read that stat in, so I Googled it…the quote here is from a podcast.)

As teachers, our words can have a huge impact. They can hurt, but they can also heal. So how can we give constructive criticism in a way that builds, rather than squashes, creativity? The following is a list that comes to my mind – feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments!

  • Balance is important – this feels like something we hear all of the time in teacher prep courses and PD sessions, but pay attention to what kind of feedback you are giving to each individual over time, and make sure it includes both positive feedback and feedback for growth.
  • Specific suggestions – “This needs to be better,” feels hopeless, but “This needs to be better, and I think you can work on it by _______,” instills a sense of confidence and expectation that they can get there.
  • Recognize the growth – if you give feedback to somebody and see them follow through on it, follow up with a compliment about how they improved! This strengthens not only the relationship of working hard = getting better, but your personal connection as well, because you noticed something specific about the way they have improved!
  • Ask questions – Particularly in creative subjects, what might look or sound like a blob or a mess to me might have significant meaning to the creator. Ask them questions about their intentions and the meaning of their work, and then give feedback to help them more clearly get their message across (if appropriate).
  • Be vulnerable with your own creativity, too – Being creative is risky. It is vulnerable. You are putting yourself out there in a way that is more individual and personal than something where there is a right & wrong answer. When we model our own triumphs and successes with creativity, we give our kids the freedom to do the same.
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This weekend, I was able to play with freedom. Instead of spending the whole time worrying about getting this note in tune, staying solidly on the bass line, or balancing with the rest of the group, I was able to just play and have fun! Words can hurt, but words can also heal. Which words will you speak to your students with this week?

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Words Can Hurt; Words Can Heal
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