“This totally sucks, I know.”: Six Steps to Speaking The Language of Students


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“This totally sucks, I know.”

That was it. That was the most important thing I said today. To a 13 year old.

After 45 minutes of explaining to a 13 year old why we were working on an application for a new school today, those three words turned the tide in a powerful weekend storm (one that had caused some minor coastal damage in the previous 24 hours). The student, who is incredibly bright and compassionate, is getting lost in a sea of “good enough” in her large public school – and she is far better than good enough. So much better.

After previous struggles in school, discussions with supportive parents led to plans to apply to smaller schools with smaller class sizes, creative resources and more one-on-one teacher support. But to a 13 year old, the idea of changing schools and losing friends is pretty much the worst thing ever. What’s worse yet, though, is that it is very hard for the student to not feel that she is the failure. In reality, no one is failing and everyone is doing their best, but the school just isn’t serving her in a way worthy of her potential and abilities. Yes, this is a huge systemic problem and a sad story that too many children and families experience. Yes, on a large scale, this just sucks. But today, for one 13 year old I care about, this sucks the most.

Why? It sucks that she had to spend free time and weekends working on applications and essays for schools her friends won’t also be attending. It sucks that the family is fighting about it. It sucks that for as many ways as her parents and I can tell her that she is not the problem, she still assumes she is.

So today, after: 45 minutes of explaining to a 13 year old the important reasons for going through the process of applying for new schools and clearly explaining why a new smaller school is a better fit… 45 minutes of talking to someone I knew was sad and angry and feeling like she has no power, I landed on the two things that struck a chord:

  1. I spent a quick 3 minutes explaining why Beyoncé would do the same for Blue Ivy (take note, educators: Beyoncé has completely influenced an entire generation of girls and young women – use her as an example of hard work, practice and dedication to any girl between 10 and 25 and you may just hit a home run).
  2. I mirrored back how much this whole situation sucks.

It was my acknowledgement that this all SUCKS that made the difference. Once the 13 year old felt that I understood and respected how she felt, she was willing to trust me and move forward with the process.

Saying “this sucks” means you’re meeting them where they’re at.

You’ll hear the phrase “we have to meet a kid where she’s at” often in educator circles. As poor as the grammatical structure of the sentence may be, it’s become a teacher colloquialism because it is precisely and exactly the most important part of our job. If we don’t find “where they’re at” and meet them there, we’re probably wasting a lot of time and getting almost nowhere. In short, we are speaking speaking the wrong language and really frustrating our kids.

Unlike learning a new language, meeting a student where he or she “is at” is a delicate and fine art that begins with getting to know each individual student’s personality, their culture, their assumptions, their expectations and their needs. And once you have a good idea of these things, neatly tying together your needs (what do you need to communicate to them?) with the slang of the day (if not to use it yourself, certainly to be able to translate it if it is used in conversation with you – you have to be in the know and you can’t afford to skip a beat lest you lose their respect. Young people already feel completely misunderstood by the world). Then, it is up to you in what is likely a tense interaction to come from a place of empathy so that you can, finally, come up with a well crafted “this totally sucks.”

If you’re not an educator, you might assume that this an obvious and easy response to get to, but it’s not, at all. One student may need to hear an adult say “this totally sucks” to feel understood. Another may require 45 minutes of positive feedback, encouragement and listening. And yet another may require just five minutes of your quiet assuring presence after a very clearly stated, “I really care about you so I’m just going to sit here and listen if you want to talk.”

(I welcome you to take a moment here to do some quick math to see just how close to impossible a job it is for a teacher to give all kids what they need day after day. Unlike the rest of us, most of these interactions can’t be scheduled for tomorrow or when we have time.)

Six Steps to Speaking Their Language

  1. Who are they? Know their culture, norms, and idols. What is a 13 year old thinking and concerned about right now? What’s cool in their world? What’s not? Where is pressure coming from? How do they connect with one another?
  2. What is most important to them? What do they value? What is their language? Know their language, currency, slang and communication style – and do not judge it, find a way to be okay with it.
  3. Be compassion: Show empathy and strive to truly understand their experience. Don’t just be compassionate, model compassion for them.
  4. Reflect: Express clearly what you see or understand their experience to be (and leave room to be corrected)
  5. Be quiet: Period. The end. Leave it there. No buts, no qualifiers, just let your understanding speak for itself. It resonates and communicates respect. Kids want to feel respected.
  6. Be open: Leave the door open: be willing to listen, hear, answer questions or just sit with them – now or anytime in the future. You may be the only person who is.

They’re just like us. They are each different. There is absolutely no standardized, cookie cutter way of reaching a kid just like there is no prescription for making a best friend. Every human relationship has its own dynamics and those we establish and create with our students are more important than any other because they are learning from us how to do this in the rest of their life, for the rest of their life. Give what you would want to receive. Be who you would need and understand as best as you possibly can. After all, when we feel understood, we feel seen, we feel important and most of all, we feel loved.

A final word:

Of course we need to teach our students proper English and code switching. Their choices and use of language and slang provide us with teaching moments galore (I have a very successful method for teaching Standard Business English for workplace readiness). And of course it is not appropriate to use slang in our teaching. It does no one any good to try too hard, act like you’re one of their peers or engage with a student in a way that is inauthentic. This is about the space where we need to learn how to reach our students. My wisest mentors taught me that it is important to understand their language, their music and their culture so we can not just know who they are, but understand why they respond and make choices they way they do. Their choice of verbal language (which is a behavior almost all young people adopt in order to fit into their culture) is only a slice of larger picture of their culture. Let’s also remember that their culture and language is not all bad, either. Societies change and form new common language, behaviors and norms as a result of youth culture just as much as our youth become the next generation of leaders and innovators. Once we understand it, we can better attune our ability to connect with students. I’ve seen conversations and trust break down when adults take offense to silly assertions of youth culture.

At the end of the day, youth culture is a language (language is far deeper than words or slang – it is dance, fashion, food, beliefs, relationship with technology, etc), and one we can benefit from understanding. And then, in appropriate moments, we can show our students that we see them, we care about who they are and we will do our best understand them. Perfect example: The principal who learns how to Dougie and does it in the hallway one morning before classes begin. We are the adults, we know when and how to do this the right way. And sometimes, it is agreeing with a student that a situation just sucks – if it is clear that that is the way to “meet them where they are at,” help them feel understood and do our important work of moving the situation and the student forward.