Are you a “Yes” or a “No” teacher?

February 21, 2019

How many times do you think you say “no” every day? Whether it’s telling a student not to mix two chemicals together in a science lab or telling a class they can’t eat their lunch on the walk to the cafeteria, the word “no” is definitely a part of a teacher’s vernacular.

When you video record yourself as a National Board candidate, you often “see” some of your habits for the first time. You might wonder about your outfit choice or your hair style, but the more important aspect of the video is what you are saying and why you are saying it.

As educators, we know our words are impactful.  We carefully chose classroom displays to welcome and empower our students, because we know those words form our classroom culture. For example, teachers who embrace Growth Mindset create displays that help students reframe their own thought processes by offering phrases such as “I like a challenge.”

Teachers are really selective about what words we speak in class – we eliminate “dumb” and “shut up” from our speech patterns and we encourage our students to do the same. And isn’t it fun when students pick up our own phrases – my students would always jokingly parrot back to me “Hmmm, I wonder…” because I would say that all the time to them.

As many of us choose to shift our classrooms to inquiry-based, student-led environments, we often focus on the phrases we use to build student confidence. Like helping a student say “I’m not good at this… yet.” Teaching our students metacognitive strategies to frame their own thought process is so important, but so are the words that we speak to students. Even the simplest words we use – like “yes” and “no”.

When you hear those two words, you probably think about permission. Like “No, you may not throw the ball in the classroom.” While there are many times we need to say “no,” we should know that our brains respond very differently to the word “no” compared to “yes”. Brain research from 2007 actually shows that your brain gets increased oxygenation when you hear the word “yes” and decreased oxygenation when you hear the word “no”. We use “no” to prohibit and “yes” to encourage, so the question for us as teachers is, “What am I doing more of each day?”

Recently I was at a workshop that used Design Thinking – a strategy to help participants be innovative when seeking to solve a problem. The Design Thinking is part of a bigger process called Action Collab, that can be used in classrooms and boardrooms to solve “wicked problems”. The session was amazing, but one of those small transformative takeaways was an improvisation strategy called “Yes, And”. The idea is that you take what you are offered and build upon that, thus identifying the value in the original idea and adding onto by contributing a new offering.

For example, a student might have gotten out of their seat to sharpen their pencil, just as you were starting to give directions. Instead of saying “No – go back to your seat” – what does it sound like to say “Yes! I’m glad you’re excited to get to work, and if you can wait one moment, I’ll give directions and then you can sharpen your pencil.” This might seem like a strange suggestion and a small issue. However, as we seek to foster creativity and innovation within our students, we want to give students every chance to hear “yes”, even as we continue to be their guides to avoid missteps.

I have a challenge for you. Tomorrow, count the number of times you say “yes” and then count the number of times you say “no.” And wonder – were there chances when I could have instead said, “Yes, and…”

Joanna Schimizzi, NBCT

Joanna Schimizzi is a National Board Certified Teacher in her 8th year teaching Biology and AP Biology in public schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. Schimizzi has been passionate about helping increase student interest in science and careers and has pursued that passion by forging a variety of community and university partnerships. To help ensure that all students have access to excellent teaching, Schimizzi has also collaborated with organizations that advance the teaching profession, and presented at conferences including the 2014 Teaching & Learning Conference.