How Words Matter in Montessori PE

In this day and age, the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” has been universally refuted. A broken bone is an injury that can be diagnosed, fixed, and eventually healed. When someone is injured with words, many times we do not know how or to what extent, it is rarely fixed, and can take years to heal from. I would bet every single person can think of an instance where something mean was said to them when they were much younger. Those same feelings of shame and anger still prickle the mind when those memories of that past event come to the surface. What is especially sad to me is that, for many people, that significant negative memory comes from PE class or sports.

As Montessorians, we understand the power of words. We dedicate a substantial portion of our day teaching and reinforcing the ideas of Grace and Courtesy. Being kind to each other through words and actions fosters the peaceful environment that lets our students flourish. I have seen beautiful examples of non-Montessori schools practicing these same ideals as well. One of my favorites is a Facebook video I see quite often of classrooms using a “Greeter of the Day.” While being kind is not unique to Montessori, I believe the value placed on kindness, through Grace and Courtesy, is unique and admirable.

Grace and Courtesy in the PE environment needs to be fostered in two different aspects: student-to-student, and instructor-to-student. For student-to-student interactions, speaking early and often about sportsmanship is important in helping the students understand how to play with others. Facilitating conflict resolution as quickly as possible is crucial; we do not want to let problems to fester. This is even more important if you are a coach; conflict within the team will destroy the culture you are trying to build. As the instructor (and/or coach), you will have the delicate role of helping students understand each other’s emotions, for conflict is rarely one-sided. One student may yell at another student, and through the conflict resolution, we acknowledge one student needs to “be more fun to play with” and work on patience, and the other student may have to work on attention or effort. Again, sportsmanship is the mantra we want to preach as the PE classrooms version of Grace and Courtesy.

The other relationship that we must use Grace and Courtesy with is between instructor and student. The instructor needs to be very mindful of the way that they communicate with the students. For students who feel unsure and exposed during PE, a joke or poorly worded comment can be internalized in a negative way that can have lasting effects. The same comment to a different student provides motivation or makes them laugh. One of the arts to teaching is knowing how to communicate with each of your students in the way they respond best. I try to be incredibly clear and honest with younger students and avoid things like sarcasm. Older students still need clarity and honesty, but their development and intelligence gives the instructor more flexibility with communication. In general, the younger the student, the more I try to emulate my communication closer to that of a parent than that of a friend. The older the students’ get, the more the balance may shift. In the end, you are their teacher, which is a unique and special relationship that combines aspects of both being a parent and friend.

Besides Grace and Courtesy, there is a whole other dimension in how we use words in the PE classroom. We must use the exact terminology that is used in the Montessori classroom as we use in our PE setting. For integration to successfully happen, the students must hear the same terminology to make the connections between the two classrooms. If you are able to take it a step further, while introducing the rules to the students, do not use the name of the physical object itself, use the name of what the object represents. For example, instead of saying, “the immune system team throws dodge balls at the pathogen team,” use the following, “the immune system team throws (or releases) antibodies at the pathogen team.” This helps the students more quickly understand the role and function of whatever is being taught in the game. However, the most important thing is that students are hearing the exact same terminology to solidify their understanding. This will become apparent during the debriefing when students use the correct terminology when discussing the symbolism of the game they just played. When students put something in their own words, the words themselves are actually transforming the student.