teaching

Show explicit respect for your audience

When you’re giving a presentation, it’s important to show explicit respect for your audience.

Good presentations are essentially a collaboration between the presenter and the audience. You try to teach in a way that they can understand — and they try to listen and understand.

It’s hard to get anywhere with a hostile audience. When an audience thinks that you have contempt for them, they’re not likely to put much effort into listening to you. They’re actually likely to actively avoid listening to you. Presentations go best when you can get a significant percentage of your audience on your side as soon as possible.

One way to do this is to show explicit respect for your audience as soon as possible. It’s very helpful to find a point of genuine connection, and to name it explicitly. It doesn’t go without saying — especially if you’re addressing an audience that is used to people like you showing contempt for them.

For instance, if you’re teaching educators, it’s often worth acknowledging that their job is hard. If you’re teaching marginalized people, it’s often worth acknowledging marginalization. If you’re teaching a group of people who have an attitude or accomplishments you respect, it’s often worth saying what they are explicitly. Showing this kind of respect tends to make for a much more productive conversation.

Tl;dr If you’re giving a presentation to a group, it’s very helpful to show explicit respect for the group in your introductory remarks.

“Can everybody hear me?”

Presenters often open by asking “Can everybody hear me?” or “Can everyone hear me without the microphone?”

This isn’t a very effective way to find out if everyone can hear you. It feels like asking, but it isn’t really — because it doesn’t usually give people the opportunity to say no.

If you want to know if everyone can hear you, this way of asking works better:

  • First, ask if everyone can hear you. This will get the attention of the people who can.
  • Next, ask everyone “Can the person next to you hear me?”
  • Wait 7 seconds for people to ask each other
  • Next, say, “Raise your hand if you or someone near you needs me to talk louder or use the microphone.”
  • Wait at least 7 seconds before moving on. 
  • (7 seconds feels really long as a presenter. It helps to literally count silently to yourself).

Asking this way solves two problems:

It makes it easier for people to hear the question:

  • If someone can’t hear you well, they may not hear “Can everybody hear me?”
  • This can give you the misleading impression that everyone can hear you.
  • When you ask, “Can everybody hear me?” the people who can, tend to respond “yes” immediately
  • The people who *can’t* hear you well, often don’t hear the question.
  • Or they may not understand what you’ve said until you’ve already moved on.
  • But they probably *can* hear people who are close to them talking to them directly.
  • Asking “can the person next to you hear me?” makes it more likely that people who can’t hear you will understand the question.

It makes it easier for people to respond to the question:

  • Saying “Can everybody hear me?” or “Can everyone hear me without the microphone?” *feels* like asking, but often it really isn’t. 
  • The problem is that asking that way doesn’t give people an obvious socially acceptable way to respond.
  • So in order for people to say “I can’t hear you” or “I need you to use the microphone”, they have to interrupt you.
  • Which feels like a conflict, and most people don’t want to go into a presentation and immediately have a conflict with the presenter.
  • It also makes them have to identify themselves as having an inconvenient impairment in front of the whole group.
  • That’s uncomfortable on a number of levels, and may be actively frightening. 
  • Not everyone is going to be willing or able to interrupt you or take risks. 
  • Even when people are willing, it’s still anxiety provoking in a way that’s likely to make your presentation less comfortable and effective
  • Giving people a clear way to respond gets you better information, and helps you to build a better rapport with your audience 
  • (And doing it in the specific way I suggest makes it possible for people to let you know they can’t hear you without having to interrupt you, identify themselves to you, or identify themselves to the whole group.)

Tl;dr If you’re giving a presentation, asking “Can everyone hear me?” probably won’t result in people who can’t hear you telling you so. Scroll up for more detailed information about a more effective approach and why it works better.

A back to school tip for aspiring teachers and academics

If you’re confused in school now, you can use that confusion to become a better teacher later. You can write detailed notes about what you’re confused about and and why. Doing this may help you to figure things out now, and it will definitely help you to teach well in the future. 

Teaching is hard, and teaching beginners is often harder. Knowing a subject well isn’t the same as knowing how to teach it. Teachers need to be able to explain things in a way that will make sense to beginners. They also need to be able to figure out why students are getting confused, and find ways to help them understand. This is much easier said than done.

Right now, you’re probably confused about some things that will feel completely obvious in a year or two. Many things that are hard to master feel completely natural once you’ve learned them. It can be hard to understand why something that has come to feel completely natural to you is confusing to your students.

As a student, you’re likely confused about your subject; as a teacher, you are likely to be confused about your students. If you write down what you’re confused about as a student, you will be doing your future self a huge favor. The notes themselves may be helpful when you teach. Beyond that, writing notes about yourself as a student can help you to start thinking from a teaching perspective. The sooner you get into the habit of thinking about your subject with teaching in mind, the better off you’ll be in the long term.

Tl;dr If you’re confused in school, you can use your confusion to be a better teacher in the future. Consider writing down what you are confused about and why. In the future, you will have students who are confused. Understanding your own confusion now can help you to understand theirs later.

You may be saying that about your student’s parent

Content note: This post is mostly intended for k-12 classroom teachers, but probably applies to other groups as well.

When you teach, it’s really important to be mindful of the fact that people from all walks of life have children. 

When you say something about a particular group of people, you may be saying it about a student’s mother, father, or parent. It’s important to keep that in mind when making decisions about how to discuss things. (Including things that it’s 100% your job to teach your class about).


When you express an opinion about a group of people, your student may hear it as “I think this about your mother”, “I think this about your father”, or “I think this about you and your family.” Don’t forget that, and don’t assume that you will always know who is in the room.

It’s worth speaking with the assumption that there are people in the room who know a member of the group you’re talking about personally. When you’re working with kids, it’s worth speaking with the assumption that this person might be their parent or someone in a parental role.

This is important whether what you’re saying is positive, negative, or neutral. If you speak in a way that assumes that what you’re saying is theoretical for everyone, it can make it very hard for a child to whom it is personal to trust you. And you can’t assume that you will always know a child’s family situation, or that you will always know how a child feels about it.

For instance:


  • Many parents are in prison, have been imprisoned in the past, are facing trial, are on probation, have been arrested, have been accused of crimes, have been convicted, are on house arrest, are facing some other kind of court-ordered punishment or similar.
  • Many parents are police officers, prison guards, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, or in a related role.
  • Many parents (and children) have been the victims of violent crimes. (Including crimes committed by police officers.) Some children may have lost parents this way.
  • All of these people are parents, and most of their children go to school.
  • Some of their kids may be in your class, and you may not know this.
  • Even if you do know about the situation, you probably don’t know how they feel about it.
  • Kids have all kinds of feelings about all of these things (including, often, complicated mixed feelings).
  • If you want to talk about prison issues, crime, justice, legal reform, or any of that, it’s important to keep in mind that whatever you say about one of these groups of people, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • And that you don’t know how they feel. 
  • Speak in a way that gives them space to have opinions, and to be both personally affected and part of the class.
  • If you say “we” and mean “people who aren’t personally connected to this issue”, kids are likely to feel that you are distancing yourself from them and their parents.
  • It’s better to speak with the assumption that what you’re saying applies to the parents of one of your students, and that they may have complicated thoughts and feelings about this.

Similarly:

  • People of all races have children of all races. When you say something about a racial group, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • People with all kinds of disabilities have children. When you say things about disabled people or disabilities, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • (Including blind people, deaf people, autistic people, people with intellectual disabilities, wheelchair users, people with conditions that usually shorten lifespan, and every other kind of disability).
  • When you talk about teenage pregnancy, keep in mind that some students may have parents who were teenagers when they were born.
  • People of all political opinions, including abhorrent opinions, have children. When you say something about members of a political group, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • People who work at McDonalds have children. When you talk about McDonalds workers and people in similar roles, it’s extremely likely that you’re talking about a student’s parent. (Especially if you teach in a public school).
  • Many people who do sex work have children. If you say something about strippers, porn stars, escorts, phone sex operators, dominatrixes, or whoever else, you may be saying it about someone’s mother, father, or parent.
  • People of all faiths and ethnicities have children (who may or may not be raised in their faith). If you say something about a religion or its followers, you may be saying it about the parent of one of your students.
  • And so on.

Being more abstract again:

  • People from all walks of life have kids, and you may be teaching some of their kids.
  • Keep that in mind.
  • Whatever you say about a group of people, you may be saying it about your student’s mother, father, or parent.
  • If you speak about it like it’s an abstract issue that couldn’t apply to anyone in the room, it’s likely to be really alienating.
  • This is true even if what you say is positive or sympathetic.
  • Kids need to be seen and acknowledged. If you speak as though they’re not there, it gets harder for them to trust you.
  • When you speak about a group of people, speak with the assumption that at least one student in the room has a parent who is a member of that group.

(To be clear: I’m not saying don’t talk about these issues. Sometimes it’s 100% your job to talk about these issues. What I am saying is, keep in mind that it may be personal, that you may be talking about a student’s parent, and that you won’t always know that this is the case. Taking this into account makes it possible to teach everyone in the room.)

tl;dr When you’re teaching, keep in mind that the kids in your class probably have parents, and that you don’t know everything about their parents. Their parents may come from any and every walk of life. Keep this in mind when you talk about issues and groups. You may well be talking about a student’s mother, father, family, or parent. 

Open letter to disability professionals

thetallestofhobbits:

realsocialskills:

Dear disability professionals,

I’m not sure why, but I keep encountering disability professionals who try to deny that disability exists, or to downplay its importance.

It’s so extreme that disability professionals often try to convince people with disabilities that we are just like everybody else. Even when our differences are the reason that you have a job.

We are not just like everyone else. We are alike in that we are all human, with the same basic needs and capacities that go along with humanity. We are also different, in that we have disabilities and most people do not.

Disability exists. Disability is important. People with disabilities are different from most people people in ways that matter. And we need those differences to be speakable.

Our bodies are different. We can’t make this go away by smiling, being brave, and trying hard.

The differences in our bodies matter. Most people can do things that are physically impossible for us. Most people can do some things easily that are excruciatingly difficult for us. The specifics of which things these are depend on the person and the disability. They always exist. That’s what disability means, it means having a different kind of body, a body that can’t do certain kinds of things easily or at all.

For everyone, with and without disabilities, understanding the limits of what our bodies can do is a key life skill. Everyone’s safety depends on understanding that they do not have wings, and that they can’t fly. My safety also depends on understanding that I have impaired vision, motor coordination, and executive functioning. Understanding these things means I have chosen not to drive, and that I have found adaptive strategies that enable me to cook safely.

From my perspective, the fact that I don’t concentrate hard and try to drive isn’t so different from the fact that I don’t flap my wings and try to fly. All I’m doing is acknowledging physical reality, and making choices that fit with my understanding of reality. Some of the physical limitations on what my body can do are the normal limits that apply to all human bodies. Other physical limitations come from my disability. They’re all just physical facts, they’re all just things I need to take into account when I make decisions. 

But as a person with a disability, I learned young that only some limitations are ok to talk about. If I say “I can’t fly”, no one contradicts me. If I say “I can’t catch”, people say “just keep trying”. Both are physically impossible for me. Trying hard will not make either possible. Neither will being brave, smiling, or believing in myself.

For some reason, many disability professionals seem to believe that honesty about our limitations will somehow destroy our self esteem. Actually, the opposite is the case. They want us to believe that if we just smile and keep trying, we can do anything that we put our minds to. But it’s a lie, and we get hurt badly when we believe it.

When professionals refuse to accept our limitations, they force us to attempt impossible tasks over and over. There is nothing positive about this experience. We try and fail, and we watch others our age succeed at the same tasks. If we believe that we can do whatever we put our minds to, then we feel like it’s our fault for not trying hard enough.

It hurts when people yell at us for failing, and it hurts when people plaster on smiles and urge us to smile and keep trying. “Come on, you can do it!” doesn’t sound like encouragement when you know that you will fail. It feels like being told that you’re somehow screwing up on purpose, and that if you would just decide to be a better person, you’d suddenly be about to do it. This kind of thing can go on for years, and it leaves scars. We often come to feel like we are unworthy people, and that there’s something deeply flawed about who we are. 

It’s very, very important that people with disabilities understand that we are disabled. We need to know that our bodies are different, and that some things that are possible for most other people aren’t possible for us. We can’t stop being disabled through an act of will. Our bodies limit us. That is not a moral failing. It’s just a fact of physical reality. And it needs to be speakable.

Our bodies and our disabilities are nothing to be ashamed of.  We don’t have to be different to be good enough. We don’t have to be nondisabled to do things that matter. We don’t have to do impossible things to be worthy of love and respect. We’re people, and who we are is ok.

And for professionals - please understand that when you refuse to acknowledge disability, you are teaching people with disabilities to be ashamed of themselves. This is probably not your intention, but it’s an inevitable consequence of making disability unspeakable.

It is much better to tell the truth. It is much better to support us in understanding who we really are, than to push us to believe in an impossible dream. I could dream of flying or playing baseball, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere. By living in the real world and working with the body I actually have, I can do things that matter. And so can all of your clients. There is no need for silence, evasion, or shame. Disability is important, and it’s much easier to live with when we can face it honestly.

thetallestofhobbits said:

All of this is why I try really hard to be straightforward with my students. I know how it feels to hear the Try for Try’s Sake speech, and I hated it.

When my kids say, “I can’t do this” or, “I suck at this,” I try to say, “I can help you do it ” or, “Let’s see if we can use what you’ve done.”

Disability professionals police language because the narrative is that if a disabled kid gets into the habit of thinking “negatively” about their level of ability related to a particular skill or subject, they will lose the motivation to attempt it, and because accessible education does not keep pace with the attitudes of disability communities about what we as members believe is reasonable about supporting full and equal access to education, we are often forced to police attitudes because we as professionals can’t be seen to “enable” a disabled person’s “failure” by not pushing them to try.

In no way do I mean to imply that this attitude is healthy or positive. It is not. But, until the narrative about supporting disabled people changes to more accurately reflect the attitudes of actual disabled people instead of abled people who think they speak for us, we’re stuck with this.

How disabled kids learn to be suspicious of optimistic teachers

This happens a lot in school:

  • A disabled kid goes to school.
  • A teacher is initially friendly and optimistic.
  • The teacher expects that their teaching will make the kid’s disability irrelevant.
  • Eventually it becomes clear that the kid’s disability is going to stay important.
  • Then the teacher gets frustrated, gives up, or stops being nice.
  • Sometimes this is overt and sometimes it’s subtle; it’s always hurtful.

A lot of kids go through this over and over during childhood. And, it often persists into adulthood and becomes a lifelong thing. It hurts. It does damage. And it means that people with disabilities are often suspicious of immediate kindly optimistic affect, and may take a long time to trust that you won’t reject them for being disabled.

If you’re teaching, be careful not to come in with the expectation that your teaching will erase disability or render it irrelevant. It won’t. Instead, start with the expectation that disability will matter and that you will be teaching students with disabilities. Disability acceptance is a key emotional skill for effective teaching. If you think around disability, it’s nearly impossible to apply any creativity to accommodating it. If you’re willing to face disability head on, it’s often possible to find good ways to adapt teaching so that a student can learn.

Access straw men

A lot of people are reluctant to change anything for the sake of accessibility, even if the change would be inexpensive and easy. Often, they resist even considering the possibility that there are changes they could make that would enable a broader range of people to participate.

Often, they set up access strawmen as a way to avoid negotiating access. 

Those conversations go like this:

  • The disabled person asks for a modification of some sort.
  • The resistant person ignores the actual request.
  • They instead describe something vaguely related that’s obviously unreasonable.
  • Then they insinuate that the disabled person asked them for the obviously unreasonable thing
  • They implore the disabled person to be more flexible and reasonable
  • The disabled person generally doesn’t get their needs met, and often ends up disoriented and feeling a lot of shame

An example:

  • Douglas: I can’t climb stairs. I need class to be held in a room on the first floor.
  • Roger: It sounds like what you really need is for all the buildings to be rebuilt for you. I can’t rebuild all the buildings; I have to focus on teaching.

Or sometimes:

  • Dawn: I can only read lips if people are looking at me. Can we talk about how to make class discussions work?
  • Robin: I can’t stop other students from talking to each other. Why don’t you take this opportunity to work on your listening skills?

When a person with a disability asks for an accommodation in school, work, a conference, or wherever, don’t set up a straw man to reject. Respond to the actual problem, and try to find a solution. Is there  a way to do the thing they’re asking for? If not, why not? Is there something else you *could* do that would work? Occasionally there is no good solution; more often, there is a way to make things work. When people in positions of responsibility are willing to look for access solutions and put effort into implementing them, a lot of things become possible.

Meaningful echolalia

Some people communicate mostly in memorized phrases or allusions to stories and events.

It’s actually pretty normal to communicate in phrases and allusions. I think most people communicate that way at least some of the time. For instance, a lot of people make Shakespeare references in situations that have little or nothing to do with literature. A lot of prose and interpersonal communication happens that way.

This is interpreted very differently for some people than others. People without disabilities who mostly communicate in literal language are taken much more seriously when they make allusions and quotes.

When a nondisabled person says “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”, it’s assumed that they’re communicating and that what they say is meaningful. They are usually understood. This is the case even if there are no ladies present and they’re obviously not talking about a lady.

Similarly, when a nondisabled person says something like “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”, this is understood as meaning something even if they obviously do not have a kingdom and are known to hate horses.

When someone with a disability communicates in exactly the same way, their communication is often written off as meaningless. It’s often seen as sensory seeking, or stimming, or a persversation, and having no communicative content whatsoever. This kind of communication is often ignored, and also often seen as a problem behavior to be extinguished by a behavior plan.

This is in part because there’s a widespread belief that autistic people are all hyper-literal and only understand literal language. That’s true of *some* autistic people. But there are also autistic people who have the opposite problem. There are people who find it nearly impossible to use literal language to communicate, but who can readily make references and use literary phrases. (This is true for other kinds of cognitive disabilities as well; it’s not unique to autism.)

People who can only communicate in references deserve to have their communication taken seriously. So do people who find references much easier than literal languages. Everyone else is allowed to use references to communicate; people with disabilities have the right to do so as well.

Here’s an example of a situation in which communication is often misinterpreted. Imagine a girl named Sarah:

  • Sarah doesn’t say very many words reliably. She can usually say a few things like mom, food, want, home, and SpongeBob.
  • Sarah watches SpongeBob a lot
  • She wants you and other people in her life to watch it with her
  • She says a lot of phrases from SpongeBob
  • (Eg: “I’m ready!”, “One eternity later”, “SpongeBob, you and I both know you’re just using me as a distraction so you don’t have to write your essay”, “Why is it whenever I’m having fun it’s wrong?”, “I’m ugly and I’m proud!”)
  • Sometimes, the assumption is made that her repetitive phrases are preventing her from developing standard language
  • Or they might think that TV is preventing her from developing standard language and that her access to TV is limited
  • Or they might think that she’s perseverating on SpongeBob in a way that’s preventing learning
  • When maybe what’s going on is that SpongeBob is *teaching* her language and communicative concepts, and she’s trying to use them to communicate
  • If so, she should probably watch more TV, not less
  • And it’s really important for people in her life to listen to her
  • And understand the references she’s making and what they mean to her
  • (Watching the shows with her is probably an important part of that; showing her other shows might be too)
  • If you want someone to communicate, you have to listen to them, even when their communication is unusual

A lot of this post about listening to people whose speech is unusual applies in this situation too.

tl;dr Repeated phrases are often meaningful. Some people with disabilities communicate mostly in memorized phrases and references and allusions to stories and other things. Nondisabled people are taken seriously when they communicate this way. Disabled people who communicate in references should be taken just as seriously. (Even when they don’t communicate in literal language very often or at all).

Thoughts on symbol support and picture support

People with certain kinds of disabilities often need more than words in order to be able to communicate. One thing that can be helpful is the use of symbols or pictures.

Using symbols can expand and support someone’s expressive vocabulary. (For instance, picture symbols on a communication device can enable someone to use words they couldn’t use by typing or speaking).

Symbols can also expand and support someone’s receptive vocabulary. For instance, symbols can be used to illustrate materials, or to explain something to someone. They can also be used in things like powerpoint presentations in various ways.

Symbol support can do a lot of other things that make communication more possible for people with a wide range of disabilities. It’s not just about literacy; literacy-related things are just the easiest to explain.

Something I’ve been realizing matters is that everyone who uses symbols to communicate is a symbol support user. Even people who normally communicate in words; even people who only use symbols to communicate when they are talking to people with disabilities or listening to people with disabilities.

It’s important to remember that communication in symbols is happening on both sides of the interaction.

If someone is communicating with you by showing you symbols, then you are using symbols for receptive communication.

If you are using symbols to explain something to someone, then you are using symbols for expressive communication.

It’s important to keep this in mind.

If you’re using symbols, the symbols are part of the communication. Even if every symbol is attached to one word and only one word. The symbols don’t just tell people what the words are. They also have content, and it’s important to pay attention to what you’re saying with the symbols. They might not mean the same thing to the person you’re talking to that they mean to you. Particularly if they understand picture-concepts more readily than they understand word-concepts.

For example:

Sometimes people might select symbols on communication devices based on what the symbols mean rather than what the words they’re associated with them mean:

  • If someone is putting together phrases that don’t make obvious sense to you, they might mean something by it
  • It might *not* be stimming, random exploration, or that kind of thing
  • It might be intentional communication based on what the pictures mean to them
  • I think it is important to take that possibility seriously (even for someone who also speaks, or also uses words)
  • And *especially* important to take seriously if they’re indicating with body language that they want you to look at the screen)
  • (This is also true if someone is using PECS symbols in a way that doesn’t appear to make literal sense. It might be because the pictures mean something different to them than they mean to you)

Similarly:

  • If you’re using symbols to explain something to someone who needs symbols, the symbols matter
  • It’s not always enough to just pick words, then pick symbols that go with those words one-by-one
  • The content of the symbols can matter beyond literal word-by-word meaning
  • The way the symbols combine can also matter. (ie: the fact that a sentence makes sense in words and each symbol corresponds well with a word does *not* necessarily mean that the symbol-sentance makes sense)
  • The symbols also might not mean the same thing to the person you’re communicating with that they mean to you
  • If someone finds symbols easier to understand than words, they may derive more meaning from the symbols and your tone of voice and body language than they do from the words themselves
  • It’s important to pay attention to what you’re communicating with the symbols you choose as well as the words that you choose

Some considerations for symbol use:

  • Consistency between symbols matters. Symbols combine in ways that make more sense when there’s an underlying logic to the symbol system.
  • Symbols should not be childish or cutesy, even for young children.
  • Because nobody, not even young children, wants to be forced to communicate in cute ways.
  • And some really important topics (eg: abuse, boundaries, sexuality) are decidedly un-cute. People with disabilities need and deserve respectful communication about things that aren’t cute or shiny-happy.
  • Symbols should be comprehensible at a variety of sizes. (Eg: overly complex symbols don’t work well for small buttons on a communication device).
  • Symbols should be respectful, especially when they are symbols of people doing or thinking or being things (eg: protestors should look powerful rather than cute; adults should look like adults; symbols for “choice” should either be abstract or be age-neutral)
  • Symbols should be accurate. (eg: the symbol for anger should not be a smiling person; the symbol for diabetes should not be the same as the symbol for “no sugar”; wheelchair users should have the kind of wheelchairs that individuals own than hospital wheelchairs; the symbol for intellectual disability should not be the same as the symbol for the special olympics)
  • In all of these ways and other ways I’m not sure how to explain yet, I think that SymbolStix is the best existing symbol set.

tl;dr Symbols can be really helpful for supporting communication and comprehension. If you’re using symbols to help someone else communicate or understand, it’s important to keep in mind that the symbols and the words both matter. Pay attention to what you’re communicating in symbols and what they’re communicating in symbols. Sometimes there are things going on beyond the literal meanings of the words that someone decided to associate with the symbols.

autistic teachers?

Anonymous said to :

Do you perhaps know of any resources for autistic teachers who work in inclusive schools? We rely on scripts a lot so when a child has different needs regarding communication I for example simply freeze and can’t come up with anything.

realsocialskills said:

I don’t know of any resources specifically for autistic teachers.

One thing I do know is that it’s important to respectfully acknowledge when you don’t understand something your student is telling you. It’s important to respect their communication enough to be honest about when you do and don’t understand.

Specifically, it can help a lot to say something like “I care what you’re saying, and I don’t understand yet.” or “I don’t understand what you’re saying, but I do care what you are saying.“

That affirms a few important things:

  • You know that they are trying to communicate something to you
  • You know that you aren’t understanding it
  • You respect them enough to think that it matters what they are saying
  • You care what they’re saying, and you want to keep listening
  • You know that you are responsible for figuring out how to listen
  • You’re trying, and you’re going to keep trying

This is important as a way to show respect. It’s also a way to tell people that there’s a point in communicating – that you’re not ignoring them and if they can figure out how to tell you what they mean in a way you can understand, you will listen.

A lot of people give up on communication because they’ve become convinced that no one will ever care about what they’re saying anyway. That’s a problem you’re probably in a position to mitigate, at least a little.

There are also a few things worth knowing about:

tl;dr If you’re responsible for teaching someone, it’s important to be honest about when you do and don’t understand their communication.

Anyone else want to weigh in? Autistic teachers who teach kids with disabilities - what have the communication barriers been? What’s working in overcoming them?

7 second rule

If you’re leading a group discussion or teaching a class, it’s important to pause for questions periodically. Part of pausing for questions is giving people time to react before moving on. People can’t respond instantaneously; they need time to react. If you don’t give them time to react, it can give you an inaccurate impression of their level of interest or engagement.


Eg:

  • Leader: Does anyone have any questions?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: Ok, moving on. 

When this happens, it’s not usually because no students had questions. It’s usually because the teacher didn’t give them enough time to process before moving on. It doesn’t actually take a huge amount of time, but there has to be some. A good amount of time to wait is seven seconds. If you wait seven seconds before moving on, someone will usually say something.


Seven seconds can feel like a really long time when you are teaching. It can feel like an awkward empty space that, as the teacher, you’re supposed to be filling. That can lead to interactions like this:

  • Leader: I just said a controversial thing. What do you think of the thing?
  • Group: …
  • Leader (immediately):… none of you have opinions about this?
  • Group: …
  • Leader: (immediately):… Really? No one?

When this happens, it’s usually not that no one had anything to say. It’s usually that the leader or teacher kept interrupting them while they were trying to get words together and respond. It’s easy to inadvertently do this, because it feels like you’re supposed to be doing something to get your students to respond. But, often, the best thing you can do to get them to respond is to wait and give them space to do it in.


It helps to remember that as the teacher or leader, you shouldn’t actually be taking up all of the space. You should also be offering your students some space and listening to them, and allowing them to ask you questions so they can understand. It’s ok if that space isn’t immediately filled; no one can react instantaneously. 


If you wait seven seconds every time you pause for questions/responses, it gives people time to process, and some people will become capable of participating who weren’t before.

Making reading assignments clear to students who use electronic formats

When reading assignments are assigned in the form “Read pages 75-100 in the Book of Subject Relevance”, it creates a problem for students who use electronic formats such as Kindle or Bookshare. Those formats often do not include page numbers, and it can be difficult-to-impossible to know what to read just by seeing page numbers.


There’s a simple solution that allows students to do the assignment:

  • If you’re assigning a whole chapter, tell students which chapter you mean.
  • eg: “Read Chapter 3 in the Book of Subject Relevance (pages 75-100).
  • If you’re not assigning whole chapters, include the first and last sentence in the assignment.
  • This allows students to use the search function to find the place you’re talking about.
  • eg: “Read pages 75-100 in the Book of Subject Relevance. (From “I have a slightly plausible theory.” through “In conclusion, I have shown that I am definitely right.”)

It’s good to also include the page numbers, because that’s better for students who use the print edition, and it gives all students a sense of how much reading there is.


tl;dr Giving reading assignments in page numbers causes a problem for students who aren’t reading the print edition. There’s a simple solution to this. Scroll up for details.

Tell students whether they will be expected to share writing

Students write very differently based on different expectations about whether they will have to share it. For instance, these are all different kinds of writing:

  • Writing that is just for their own processing
  • Writing that only the instructor will read
  • Writing that will be shared with peers, but not seen by the instructor
  • Writing that will be shared with both the instructor and peers
  • Writing that will be graded
  • Writing that will not be graded

When students have to show work to people they weren’t expecting to show it to, that can be embarassing. It can be embarassing because it contains information they’d rather not share widely, or because it isn’t yet polished to an extent that makes them comfortable showing it to others.


To give an example:

  • Teacher: Ok, everyone, take 40 minutes and write a short story about a childhood pet.
  • (40 minutes later)
  • Teacher: Ok, pass your story to the person sitting next to you. Everyone check everyone else’s grammar. 
  • This makes several students very uncomfortable, for these reasons:
  • Bob is terrible at grammar and insecure about it. He focused on getting a draft of the story first, not expecting that someone would be taking a red pen to his grammar mistakes. He would have focused on grammar if he’d known it would be a grammar exercise. 
  • Susan’s story is about a time her dog ripped up her favorite doll and made her cry. She doesn’t want all of her peers to know that story because some of them will tease her about it. She would have written something less private if she’d known peers would see it.
  • James couldn’t think of a story about his pets and spent the whole time writing how frustrated he was that he couldn’t do the assignment. He doesn’t want his classmate to see that he failed at the assignment.
  • Val didn’t have a real pet and so she wrote about an imaginary robot. She doesn’t know if that counts or not, and is afraid that another student will think she did it wrong.
  • Bruce decided to write a story in a style he’d never tried before, and isn’t happy with the result. He doesn’t want to show his first attempt to a peer. He would have done something he was more familiar with if he’d known.

tl;dr: When you assign writing assignments to your students, tell them who will be reading them. In particular, if students will be expected to show their work to peers, warn them ahead of time so that they can make an informed choice about what to write.

Doing right by victims of bullying

Hello! I’m in my first year of teaching and I have a couple of students who are being bullied verbally everyday by a group of older boys. Of course, I’ve been working on putting an end to it, but instead of helping my bullied students, the boys have just added me and another new teacher to their list of targets. They are not my students so I can’t directly punish them and their own teacher wouldn’t do anything about it. And their parents are busy rich people who couldn’t be bothered. Any advice?

There’s a book you need to read. The Are Word by Dave Hingsbuger is an amazing practical guide to helping victims of bullying. It’s short, easy to read, and has practical techniques that actually help people. (He wrote it for those who work with people with intellectual disabilities, but what he says is broadly applicable to everyone.)

Some things I think it’s important to acknowledge about this kind of situation (and this is part of what Dave Hingsburger discusses in his book):

  • You might not be powerful enough to make the bullies stop
  • The victims are almost certainly not powerful enough to make the victims stop
  • There are a lot of things you can do for your students, whether or not you can stop the bullies
  • Your students need you, and it’s important to be there for them

Be careful about your ego:

  • You probably want to see yourself as someone who stops bullying
  • Most teachers decent enough to care about vulnerable kids feel that way
  • This can lead to some bad consequences when there are bad things going on that you can’t stop
  • Sometimes teachers who want to believe that they are solving bullying end up talking themselves out of acknowledging bullying when they can’t fix it
  • Or worse, sometimes they convince themselves that teaching victims social skills or other responses will fix bullying
  • That ends up hurting victims really badly, and making them feel like it’s their fault and/or that no adults care very much about what’s happening to them.
  • Don’t do that to their students
  • Acknowledge what’s happening to your students, even when it hurts to admit to yourself that something bad is happening that neither you nor they can fix

Even when you are not powerful enough to control the behavior of bullies, there are a lot of other things you can and should do to help your students. I’ve written before about things adults can often do to help victims of bullying.

tl;dr: Teachers can’t always stop bullying; they can always do things that are at least somewhat helpful to victims of bullying. One of the most important things you can do is to be honest with yourself and your students about the situation. _The Are Word_ by Dave Hingsburger is an incredibly helpful book for anyone who wants to support victims of bullying.

A thought on inclusive teaching

thecolorsky:

realsocialskills:

When you teach a class or lead a discussion, participation is often easy for some people and hard for others.

People who find participation easy will tend to talk a lot and ask a lot of questions. They can really easily fill up all the space with their confidence and their speech. This can result in people who struggle to participate feeling like they have no way to say anything. (This is not necessarily anyone’s fault.)

It is possible to create space for them in several ways. They all start from presuming competence. Specifically - start from the presumption that people who aren’t participating have worthwhile things to say, and 

They also start by paying attention to who is and isn’t participating. If you notice whose voices are absent, it becomes easier to find ways to include them.

Some specifics:

It can help to call on people specifically when you notice they’re not saying things, in a low-pressure way:

  • Say you notice that Susan hasn’t said anything in the discussion
  • You can say, “Susan, would you like to add something?” or
  • “Susan, what do you think?”
  • If you’re not asking for an answer to a particular question, and you ask in a non-demanding tone, this can be a good way to give people a chance to talk
  • Particularly if you wait a few seconds after asking, and take no for an answer (whether it’s a stated no or an implied no)

It can help to ask in a more general way:

  • Sometimes the conversation is dominated by a few people 
  • You can often address this by saying something like
  • “Would anyone who has not said anything yet like to say something?” or
  • “I’d like to hear from people who haven’t spoken.”
  • This lets people who aren’t speaking up know that you care about what they have to say without putting individual pressure on anyone
  • It also lets people who are taking up the space know that you’d like to make sure you hear from everyone

It helps to be available through email:

  • Some people who care deeply about the subject and want to participate aren’t able to do so in real time
  • If they are better at using email, being available by email will make it possible for them to participate
  • (It might also make it easier for them to tell you about barriers to their participation)

People who teach: What have y’all seen work well for people who want to participate but find it difficult? 

People who find it difficult to participate: What have teachers done that made it easier for you? What made it harder?

thecolorsky said:

As both someone who has (a very small amount of) experience teaching & who is also a quieter person / slower processer in class, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this. for me as a student, my lack of participation stems from two things: 1) not being confident, and 2) processing slowly, and i think those two things have different solutions. 

  • re: the first set of suggestions. I think calling on people individually only helps if it is definitely a VERY low pressure situation. otherwise, it is very stressful to me when i am not expecting to be called on and don’t have a fully formed idea yet, as a slower processer. and as someone who is at times not sure of my answer, it can put a lot of pressure on me to have a ‘good’ answer in front of everyone.
  • for the second set of suggestions: I have been in classes when a teacher tries to get quieter folks to participate by addressing the whole class with a blanket “anybody else?” type statement. I agree that this does let students know that you care about everyone participating, and can help those who aren’t as good at interrupting others / jumping into the middle of a discussion participate. for slower processers, however, this often does not actually help me as a student process any faster if I am not ready to speak and can be frustrating as I feel like I’ve ‘wasted’ my chance to participate by not being ready. As a teacher I have found that instead, having students write down their thoughts/questions first for a few minutes, before allowing anyone to speak, lets those slower processers work out what they want to say first and often results in them speaking more. This can also be done with pair-shares, where students partner / group up and discuss in smaller groups before having to speak in front of the whole class.
  • I really like the third set of suggestions for email. it’s definitely an easier way to communicate for many folks and lets people have time to think of new ideas. making it clear that you welcome additional thoughts by email is helpful, as students may not know they can participate that way.

Also, a professor once talked to me for a long time about how important she thought it was that I asked questions of people in class, rather than just spewing out pretentious, ‘perfect’-sounding ideas of my own. This conversation meant a lot to me. Making it clear to students that asking a question or not being sure of something is an equally valid way of participating can also help make the space more equitable.

realsocialskills said:

Thank you for that. There are a lot of things in there that I need to think about.

I particularly like the suggestion to give people time to process their questions before opening up for group conversation.

One thing I want to add now: If you count class participation as part of the grade, you should count on-topic emails after class as participation. Because that’s as much participation as speaking up in class is.

A thought on inclusive teaching

When you teach a class or lead a discussion, participation is often easy for some people and hard for others.

People who find participation easy will tend to talk a lot and ask a lot of questions. They can really easily fill up all the space with their confidence and their speech. This can result in people who struggle to participate feeling like they have no way to say anything. (This is not necessarily anyone’s fault.)

It is possible to create space for them in several ways. They all start from presuming competence. Specifically - start from the presumption that people who aren’t participating have worthwhile things to say, and 

They also start by paying attention to who is and isn’t participating. If you notice whose voices are absent, it becomes easier to find ways to include them.

Some specifics:

It can help to call on people specifically when you notice they’re not saying things, in a low-pressure way:

  • Say you notice that Susan hasn’t said anything in the discussion
  • You can say, “Susan, would you like to add something?” or
  • “Susan, what do you think?”
  • If you’re not asking for an answer to a particular question, and you ask in a non-demanding tone, this can be a good way to give people a chance to talk
  • Particularly if you wait a few seconds after asking, and take no for an answer (whether it’s a stated no or an implied no)

It can help to ask in a more general way:

  • Sometimes the conversation is dominated by a few people 
  • You can often address this by saying something like
  • “Would anyone who has not said anything yet like to say something?” or
  • “I’d like to hear from people who haven’t spoken.”
  • This lets people who aren’t speaking up know that you care about what they have to say without putting individual pressure on anyone
  • It also lets people who are taking up the space know that you’d like to make sure you hear from everyone

It helps to be available through email:

  • Some people who care deeply about the subject and want to participate aren’t able to do so in real time
  • If they are better at using email, being available by email will make it possible for them to participate
  • (It might also make it easier for them to tell you about barriers to their participation)

People who teach: What have y'all seen work well for people who want to participate but find it difficult? 

People who find it difficult to participate: What have teachers done that made it easier for you? What made it harder?

Including people who get talked over

Often, in class conversations, some students will talk over other students and not let them get a word in edgewise. (This happens a lot between male and female students. It’s not always gendered that way but that’s a common dynamic.), eg:

  • Brenda: I thought the colors were too bright because they made the background more prominent than the…
  • Bob: Actually, the colors were too bright. They made the background more prominent than the foreground. That’s a problem because you have to be able to pay attention to the foreground.

When Bob is allowed to do this, it effectively cuts Brenda out of the conversation. Eg, this is one continuation I’ve seen a lot:

  • Bob: Actually, the colors were too bright. They made the background more prominent than the foreground. That’s a problem because you have to be able to pay attention to the foreground.
  • Teacher: Yes, distracting background colors detract from the most important parts of the scenes.

When the teacher says something like that, they’re responding to Bob and ignoring Brenda. If Brenda was making the same point, then she deserves to be acknowledged. If she was making a different point, then she deserves to be heard. It’s important to listen to all the students who participate sincerely, not just those who talk over others.

You don’t have to put up with this. You can turn your attention back to the student who was talking before they got interrupted. This is one way to do that:

  • You (ignoring Bob): Brenda, what do you mean about the background being more prominent? Can you say more?
  • This lets Brenda know that you value what she’s saying.
  • And it allows her to be heard even though Bob doesn’t value what she’s saying.
  • This also sends the message to other students that you will listen to them, take them seriously, and not allow them to be talked over.

This usually works better than directly addressing Bob in the moment. If you call Bob on it directly, that can lead to derailing the conversation into an argument about Bob, eg:

  • Teacher: Bob, please don’t talk over Brenda
  • Bob: I wasn’t talking over Brenda.
  • Teacher: She was saying something, and you interrupted her.

This can backfire because it keeps the focus on Bob rather than the person he was talking over. It’s also less powerful. You don’t need Bob’s permission to pay attention to the student he interrupted. You can just pay attention to her.

Another possibility:

  • Teacher: Bob, let Brenda finish then you can make your point. Brenda, what were you saying about the background colors?

This can work sometimes because it’s not directly accusing Bob of anything, and it immediately shifts the focus back to the person he interrupted. 

I think there are other approaches that work well too, but I don’t know what they are. Any of y'all want to weigh in?

soilrockslove:

Finding out about nicknames respectfully

realsocialskills:

I recently started substitute teaching, and I’m wondering about calling students by nicknames. Specifically, I’m wondering when to ask if a student has a nickname. So far, I usually just ask “do you go by (name on the roll)?” when a kid’s…

soilrockslove said:

Yeah, I’ve worked in elementary schools before, and asking the whole class if they have any nicknames usually works fine!

But asking specific kids can be hurtful.  Especially if they have a name from another culture, because sometimes they’ve had lots of people complain how “hard” their name is and it becomes a sore point. :/

And there will probably be an occasional kid who asks to be called “Batman” or something - but that usually works out fine too!  Usually they really enjoy getting to be “Batman” for a day and have a lot of fun!

alexfienemann:

Finding out about nicknames respectfully

realsocialskills:

I recently started substitute teaching, and I’m wondering about calling students by nicknames. Specifically, I’m wondering when to ask if a student has a nickname. So far, I usually just ask “do you go by (name on the roll)?” when a kid’s…

alexfienemann said:

I have been teaching middle school for eight years.  All I do, the very first time I meet a class and take attendance, is ask them to tell me if they go by another name, like their middle name, a shortened version of their name, or a nickname, or if I pronounced their name incorrectly.  I also tell them that calling them by the right name is very important to me.  They respond very well to this.

ischemgeek:

Finding out about nicknames respectfully

realsocialskills:

I recently started substitute teaching, and I’m wondering about calling students by nicknames. Specifically, I’m wondering when to ask if a student has a nickname. So far, I usually just ask “do you go by (name on the roll)?” when a kid’s…

ischemgeek said:

I teach martial arts and I also TA courses.

If I can get a list of names ahead of time, I do. Then I Google the pronunciations of any names that are unfamiliar to me before class. If the name has more than one possible pronunciation, I note them both and make a note on the list to ask which pronunciation is correct. Many websites exist with sound recordings of how to pronounce different names. If I can’t find it, I make do with the phonetic pronunciation, though this doesn’t work as well for tonal names.

If the class is big, I announce at the start, “My name is [my name]. I know it’s annoying to have your name mispronounced. If I don’t say your name right, let me know either by email, coming up to me after class, or speaking to me immediately, whichever you prefer. It might take me a few tries because I’m bad at learning names, but I will get your name right. As well, if there’s something you’d prefer me to call you, let me know however you prefer.”

And then I move on. I don’t do an attendance list in big classes because  I know that it can out trans students. If attendance taking is mandatory (usually not), I’ll send around a sign-in sheet instead. Sure, it’s a bit more work to transcribe it, but if it keeps people safe, it’s worth it. If I do send around a sign-in sheet, I ask people to write it with their nickname, and either put their legal name in brackets or come up to me afterwards.

In big classes, people will usually come up and tell me after the lecture what they’d like me to call them - I write it down on my enrollment sheet, next to their legal name, and I ask them to sign everything with their nickname (seeing names in writing helps me learn them - I’m a very visual learner).

In small classes, I go up to the person and introduce myself. “Hi, I’m [my name], one of the instructors here. Nice to meet you.” They will usually introduce themselves with whatever they like to be called. “Hi, I’m [their name].”

The other thing I do is keep to my word that I will get people’s names right. I’ll keep practicing until I do. We had a kid in my martial arts class recently who had a name that sounded like two other names. It took me four tries to get her name right because I was having a bad auditory processing day and at first I missed a sound and then I could not get the sounds in the right order, but I got it right eventually. People usually don’t mind too much if you’re sincerely trying (I won’t lie: they do mind a bit because they probably have to put up with this more often than not when they meet new people, but they appreciate that you’re not going to just rename them for your convenience and that you’re putting effort in to learn their name).

Important: Thank the person for their patience after you’ve learned how to say the name. From experience: It’s aggravating to always have to correct how people pronounce your name, even if they don’t mean anything by it. A “Thanks for being patient with me!” helps a lot - showing appreciation tells me that you actually give a damn about me and my time, and it tells me that you know you imposed a bit.

And note to teachers: I’ve never found that making sure I get names right undermines me with students. I know some people are worried about that when they ask students to teach them how to say stuff. It doesn’t - if anything, they respect me more because they know I care more about getting it right than I do about how I look.