The Way We Talk About Children (and Their Delightful Savagery)


From the moment we emerge into the world, people begin speaking about us, and for us. Eventually we get to a place where we can take over the storytelling, yet despite this independence we can (with some digging, some gentle brushing away of the dusty layers covering what’s hidden) feel the vestiges and remnants of all the said things about us (for us, to us) when we talk about ourselves. Those underlying architectures inform our own sense of self (our innate value, or lack thereof; our potential for doing great things, or lack thereof); they quietly (often invisibly) permeate our interactions with others and serve as a filter for how we experience the world.

We enter formal schooling as small children, and leave as (young, still forming/fomenting) adults. Problematically, many of the ways that the people and apparatus of education speak and relate to students remain consistent throughout those 13 years; students receiving direction, input, guidance, feedback, critique, consequences, rewards, recognitions – yet, conversely, students rarely having the opportunity to give feedback of their own (why open Pandora’s Box?) or to provide direction to teachers and school leaders. Children follow set pathways from birth, yet often I notice how we as adults perseverate on the moments they don’t – and on the relatively few young individuals who do not comfortably conform to the many limits and boundaries our structures (and attitudes) impose.

IMG_4460Was Socrates perhaps being a bit tongue-in-cheek?

Of the many thousands of conversations I have had with students in my office (often on the receiving end of being “in trouble” – a vague but ubiquitous catchall! – though at times there of their own accord), I do not recall one instance of the student gloating or feeling proud about their removal. Of the times I have suspended a student from school for more serious matters, I do not recall one instance of a student leaving in a celebratory mood. While it may seem that the students who are most challenged to abide by our rules dislike school, they may in fact be the people that want (need) to feel that sense of belonging the most. A seventh grader who was a frequent visitor to my office last year showed more self-awareness than most adults I know as he reflected on his relationship to teachers and school: “I’m stuck.”

How much did our frustration, anger and disappointment help this child? (He attends another school this year)

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s recollections of attending public school in Baltimore are as necessary to read for any educator as Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” From Between the World and Me:

“I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them.” 


Woven within the bricks of our DNA and as fundamental to our structure as blood, bone, tissue and nerve fibers is language. Its essential creative power is matched, with equal and opposite intensity, by its destructive potential. Pause for a moment and think of a comment someone made to you when you were younger that hurts you to this day – for the sake of this particular post, imagine it being a comment from a teacher during the time that you were a student (I have a few). Even with the best of intentions, our words can seep into the porous conscience of the children we work with like so many flames. Yet, because of the constructs of authority we continue to wield (teacher to student, admin to teacher, school to parent), very few students (or parents) are willing to offer a question – or polite challenge – to these words.

As we get older it’s safe to say we like to settle in a bit, not have every day of our lives feel like starting from zero. One of education’s most existential dangers is that the (hard-working, well-intentioned) people working within it seek order and predictability in their daily tasks; adulthood is a study in stability, but childhood (ahem – especially middle school) is a scramble along the ragged edge of catastrophe. Children often end up out of class and in the office because they are “out of control” (words they hear us say and feel in our demeanor towards them; words that sink deep into them, that they remember 30 years later); how is the culture of schooling so divorced from the raw vulnerability – and excitability – of youth?

An episode from the fantastic RadioLab podcast  talks about a girl born at 23 weeks, 6 days – the marginal zone of viability for newborns. I won’t ruin the story, but the mom talks about little Juniper French like this:

“There is a savagery to her that is amazing.”


Middle school is like this: Why step when you can jump? Why walk when you can RUN? Savages.

Veering a bit toward the school administrator who might be reading this – how do others expect you to relate to children? Thinking of movie characters, who do you hear your (vocal) constituents asking you to be? What leadership archetypes are people asking for when they talk to you about kids? Do they want Yoda…or Vader?


Science shows that 70+% of communication is non-verbal. We feel and see how others think about us without a word being spoken. Often kids will tell us we are “yelling” at them when our voices are not raised at all (think about how you responded the last time your spouse/partner had some critical words for you, delivered at a normal volume); the messenger might be calm however we, as archeologists of meaning, dig beneath the veneer of their words in search of what they are communicating about our value as a person, about our potential. 

A fundamental underpinning to public education as a true catalyst for equity and justice in society is our belief in the children we serve. Before we begin addressing policies and structures, let’s first examine who we are as people; let’s use the chisel (and the delicate brush) to unearth our own attitudes and assumptions about children. While it is true that every school needs an anthropologist, we must also employ an archeologist’s methodology to better understand each adult that occupies and propagates the organizational framework (physical, procedural and cultural).

We can assess what we value as an organization by what we talk about when we meet. What opportunities do you have right now (teacher, teacher leader, coach, TOSA, admin…) to generate and sustain this conversation where you work?


Homemade emojis for a typically operatic day of middle school wonders – and savageries. 


Just as we examine how we talk about kids, let’s question how we talk about our fellow adults. Via @davidtedu

Readymade Staff Meeting Questions (take the meeting outdoors for an added prize of being memorable):

  1. What do we notice about how we speak to each other about our students?
  2. Think back to conversations you had with your own teachers. Describe one that was uplifting; describe one that hurts to think about to this day. Why do you think you still remember those interactions?
  3. Reflect on a challenging conversation you’ve had with a student; what could you have done or said differently to produce a better outcome?
  4. In thinking about all the interactions you had with other adults today, estimate the number of them focusing on a kid problem and the number on kid victories. What do you learn from this?
  5. What are ways we can ascertain how our students feel about us? How can we help them develop the skills of polite advocacy and conflict resolution in our classrooms, on campus and out in the world?
  6. List five words describing how you believe your school leadership should relate to students. Gather and share as a word cloud. What do we notice? What do we wonder? What are our next steps?
    1. Share the word cloud with students; what do they notice? What do they wonder?
  7. Challenge: invite a student whom you know is having challenges in your class/school and just listen. Only ask clarifying questions and develop a timeline for feedback and meeting again to discuss how things are going.
  8. What will it take for all of our students to believe in us and the work we do on their behalf?

3 thoughts on “The Way We Talk About Children (and Their Delightful Savagery)

  1. Applause for minding the gap between them and us, Eric. Slippery slopes and jagged edges emerge in reflective process.
    Here, you open a chasm to reveal how adults’ words and deeds imprint on children. Us too. I recall a primary teacher smearing my face with glue in response to some imagined transgression. Even last year – 40 anniversaries survived in a different hemisphere – my grandmother could not fathom the depth of ill-feeling I bore her own/ my/ the local village school.
    Perhaps this is what drives us as educators keen to make a difference.

    1. As always, Sam, I enjoy reading your responses more than the post itself!! This I think is the immense power of the teacher – the ability to transform or to belittle. I was in the market while thinking about this post and suddenly Pink Floyd played over the speakers; “Dark sarcasm in the classroom…” Bit by bit we make it a kinder experience I think (hope). Cheers, Sam!

  2. Eric,
    I can not retweet this enough! First of all the picture of you standing with the students holding back a smile is perfect! A grown up trying to be serious but a true savage underneath. I believe we all are savages but as adults it gets dampened by the hum drum routines of life. While good, the best with a humble and grateful attitude, but even better when we remain savages. Hungry for life, our passions, and each other. Right sized savagery IS the zest and propellant for risk! I loved so much about your post, the links, the video, the staff questions…I could go on. It is tough work to uncover the savagery of teens. Puberty, hormones, insecurities, abuse, addiction all cover up who they are. They do listen and look for how we speak about and to them because many are completely lost to a sense of self. Are we inclusive, do we ignore, complain and judge to a fault? Or do we rejoice in their hints of savagery…when they challenge us, argue a little, “defy” is, do we push them back in the line up or do we release the beast? Speaking for myself I release the beast. A beast myself I need them with me! I’d rather take my chances and run with wolves rather than be the hearder of sheep.
    Thank you for your mindful work. Please consider moving to SoCal and working in altED!!!!!! Haha
    All the best,

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