Principal Portraits: Notes on Communication

Todd Bartholomay

by Todd Bartholomay

For Middle Level

When we communicate with students, we enter a fascinating and dynamic dance between sender and receiver. Examining our teacher language in light of five categories (directing, reminding, reinforcing, redirecting, reflecting) helps us match the language we use to our purposes. But for all our efforts to be clear, we cannot control what a student is able or willing to hear, and sometimes we discover that they hear or interpret our language in ways we couldn't have imagined.

Language reflecting an objective mindset is essential when things are turbulent—when students blurt, bluster, blame, or blow up.

But even when I was rock-steady in my role as teacher or principal, that didn't guarantee that all students experienced me as welcoming, fair, or kind.

Principal Portrait 1

Sometimes, even though I tried hard to deliver objective, important, and unemotional redirections, they experienced me (maybe because of my authority) as dominating, maybe even frightening. It's interesting, sometimes surprising, and always important how differently various students experienced me. Consider this portrait left in my office for me by a student whom I thought I had treated with the utmost equanimity. He had been referred from his classroom because he was having a very hard time and could not manage some of his social entanglements. Our conversation did not quell his storm.

Other students observing me in that very same moment of redirection, problem-solving, or Social Contract maintenance might have perceived me quite differently—perhaps as a respectful but firm steward, a dutiful caretaker of the community.

Another day, two students delivered a drawing to me with a note of gratitude for my involvement with them and their classmates in calming a social squall.

Principal Portrait 2

Then there were those who were curious about what made me tick. They wondered who was behind the administrator/Social Contract-keeper façade. To these students, I was an enigma. They suspected there was a quirky, possibly nerdy human being behind the man in the principal's office. (They might have been correct!) They observed and assessed my behavior, maybe looking for hints of something less wooden, more whimsical. They conjured a quizzical, morphing notion of who I am, one that didn't cement our relationship, but instead had room for growth and change.

Here is a drawing I received from a girl with whom I worked for many hours over time.It might have been a way of saying thank you. Or maybe she was saying, "you're weird." Or maybe she was saying, "Break out! You can be anything you want to be!"

Principal Portrait 3

A beautiful and challenging thing about teaching is that the myriad and unique qualities of our relationships are negotiated through our communications. Through our sometimes surprising exchanges, we work toward important goals together. Sometimes we encounter detours and learn things about ourselves. We and our students grow in and around our relationships. And if we don't take them too personally, we can truly enjoy them.

How does your teacher language depict you in your students' eyes?

Todd Bartholomay is the Programs and Special Projects Director for The Origins Program. A long-time practitioner of the Developmental Designs approach, he taught at the middle level for fourteen years. He also served as a principal in the St. Paul Public Schools, where he was in school adminstration for ten years.

Posted August 2013

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Related Topics: 
Teacher Language, Teaching Mindsets