My teacher language has changed over the past decade.
This is partly because of my own professional development around different classroom management philosophies, partly from my own mental adjustment in response to student misbehavior, and also partly from listening to the way other teachers and myself talk to students. I feel enormously blessed to work at the school I do, and I think teachers in general have the best interest of students at heart. There are phrases, however, that I’ve heard both uttered from myself and other teachers that have made me wince. It’s not that any of these phrases below are inherently bad, rude, or would only be said by a teacher who is out of touch. These are just phrases that have left me questioning after I’ve heard or said them.
As I turn these phrases over in my mind, I want to think about the impact of our language as teachers. There is a lot of gray area when it comes to things like jokes and sarcasm, but more and more, I think about how something might be misinterpreted or remembered in a way that doesn’t put me in a positive light. I don’t want that to be my legacy in a student’s mind. I want to leave behind a positive, professional impression. I also don’t know what my off-handed comment might lead a student to think, either positively — in that they never saw themselves as a writer or good at math — or negatively — in that now they think I don’t believe they are capable or happy.
For these reasons, the phrases below are ones I try to actively avoid. Below I will also offer the replacement phrases that I have tried to use in my interactions with students. I believe that this is a work in progress, not just professionally but personally for me. Our language should be flexible and mindful. One of the most uncomfortable things I’ve done is record myself teaching and watch it back, but it really helps me reflect on what I’m doing and what I’m saying. This is the power of reflection, and I hope that this article, even if you don’t agree with everything I say, helps you reflect on your own teacher language.
#1 You must say yes if someone asks you to play.
Replacement: Is it possible to include them? What is your choice: play the game with ____ or play a different game? Is there a reason you don’t want them to play (talk to the student off to the side)?
As an elementary school teacher, this phrase is actually an expectation within my school that has been stated by the assistant principal and counselor, and it has bugged me for a long time. The intention behind it is that no student is purposely excluded from a game or bullied. The way this is often phrased to students is: “What do you say when someone asks you to play?” “Yes!” I think it is important to make space for students in a game, teach them to compromise, and work out our differences; however, I have found that when students don’t want to play with someone, it might be for a reason that’s more complicated. This is a chance for problem solving which requires nuance and not merely a command: you must play. Here are some problems I’ve come across:
- They just spent 10 minutes sorting out groups and don’t want to renegotiate teams
- That person was mean to them the last time they joined
- The group is getting too big for the game to work effectively
- That person tends to cheat, and they are tired of dealing with it
In these instances, saying “yes” and letting the person join in does not solve the problem. Instead, maybe consider these solutions to talk through with students:
- Let’s discuss what’s important and not important. Since this is just a game at recess, anyone can join in anywhere, and it’s okay if the teams are not perfectly balanced.
- Share your feelings with an “I statement.” I feel worried that you will be mean to me when you play this game. Can you be nice? If you are not nice to us, I will not want to play with you and will leave the game.
- Can we split the group into 2 separate games? Is there another game we can play instead that’s better suited to a large group?
- If you don’t want to play with them, you can leave and play a different game.
I personally think it’s helpful to teach students that if they are mean, if they cheat, if they are physically rough, others will not want to play with you. That is a logical consequence. As an adult, I love to play board games, but if I pitch a fit over rules, try to cheat, or brag about winning, others will not want to play with me. As a result, I will not be invited to play at other people’s houses. Perhaps we should be more open with that information with one another. If my behavior is inappropriate, I should not expect others to just include me because I want to play.
This whole scenario of being forced to say yes just because someone else asks is also an issue of consent. There is mutual consent going on when people are playing together. I do not think that consent is something that can only be taught as students get older. In fact, the earlier we can teach the idea of consent, the easier it can be applied to situations where it is more harmful if not followed. If someone asks you to do something, do we want to teach students that you have to say yes? Is that the message we want to send?
I think I have been taught that I have to say yes to someone’s request if someone asks me nicely, but I now believe that I can say no, even when someone asks nicely. I think there is a difference between bullying and targeting someone, telling them no repeatedly, and just being able to tell someone no in an isolated instance. So many teachers (women) were trained as children (girls) to say yes and be helpful and include someone regardless of how it made them feel. I think forcing a “yes” out of someone is a consent issue, and it’s one we can address better.
#2 “Friends”, “Boys/Girls,” “Gentlemen/Ladies” for students
Replacement: Scholars, Writers, Mathematicians, Scientists, Readers, Students, [4th…] Graders, Everyone, Caring/Kind/etc Students
There are many names we use for “students” and “class.” I personally have always told students that they were not my friends. A friend is a dynamic where the two participants are equal. They do not have to be the same age, but a teacher/student dynamic is not equal. As a teacher, even when I feel powerless in the school system at large, I have power in my classroom and authority over students. I determine many things about our space and time together. Therefore, I do not call students “friend” or “buddy”.
While this is arguably more important when teaching older students, younger students also need that professional line to be drawn. I have noticed that teachers or adults who use “friends” to address students tend to be more personally affected by misbehavior and students and they tend to experience a lot of disrespect from students in small ways (calling out, talking back, etc.)
One trend that is fading out is naming student genders (boys/girls, gentlemen/ladies). This approach varies widely where some teachers feel it is respectful, some teachers feel it is harmful to our LGBTQ+ students, some parents are upset when it is said, some parents are upset when it is not said. When I moved grade levels to teach younger students, I often felt that they were more obsessed with gender and more vocal about it than older students. They see things in black and white and want to know if an ambiguous character or video persona is a boy or girl.
I do not think we need to reiterate gender separation with constant reminders that this is who you are – a boy or a girl. With our language, we can give students an identity. If a student is unsure of their gender identity, then I am reminding them of that all day long if I use gentlemen/ladies. If a student easily identifies as a girl but feels like they are different from other girls, we might be reminding them of that feeling all day long without knowing it. Instead of making students feel respected and included, we are likely alienating certain students.
However you feel about pronouns, one small shift you can make is to not use gender-specific naming for your whole class. According to the Trevor Project, “having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among LGBTQ young people by 40 percent.” We as teachers are constantly informing the identity of students and their role socially. I believe this gender-neutral language is important at all levels of education. You can read more about LGBTQ-Inclusive and Supportive Teaching Practices here.
#3 Sit down. Be quiet.
Replacement: Show me how we listen to our classmates. How can you show respect to your classmates? What are the options for sitting on the carpet? Think about what you need to start class. Show me how to sit at your desk. What are the expectations for ____?
When we redirect behavior, we do not want to get into a power struggle or debate over our choices as educators. Since we do not want to linger and have to explain a myriad of reasons why a student should just be following the rules, we can clip our language to statements such as “sit down” or “be quiet.” I have heard these words come out of my own mouth when I was frustrated, but I did not like the way it made me feel even if everyone started behaving afterwards.
I’ve been trained in Responsive Classroom which is a classroom management philosophy. The teacher language I’ve learned through that course and their books has revolutionized my practice, and it’s something I continually try to improve. There are 3 types of teacher language: Reinforcing, Reminding, and Redirecting. Reinforcing language is positive, and I’ll talk about that next. Reminding language is a chance for you to help students adjust their own behavior. This is the difference between telling a student what to do and helping them recall a procedure they’ve already been taught.
Phrases such as “Show me…”, “What did we…”, “How can we…”, and “Think about…” are great sentence starters. I will force myself to just say “Show me…” and try to finish the sentence with an expectation so that I’m training myself to not just tell students what to do but help them be more successful in the long term by thinking about the consequences of their actions and how to participate in the classroom more fully. If you’d like to learn more, The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton and The Power of Our Words for Middle School are great resources.
#4 I like how….is doing it
Replacement: I notice…Did you notice…I see…You _____
Something I heard stated over and over again in classrooms when I was first in practicums by other pre-service teachers and younger teachers whom I felt I wanted to emulate was “I like how the class is getting started. I like how John is starting his work. I like how Bella is working quietly.” I heard these affirmations and thought they sounded like cheap praise which felt a little gross, but it also seemed to work. I was confused by what I didn’t like exactly. I never picked up the practice because it just didn’t work for my personality, but I wanted to provide encouragement to students and let them know when they did something well.
The solution I needed but didn’t know I wanted was reinforcing language. As I mentioned above, Responsive Classroom names 3 types of teacher language. Reinforcing Language should be the majority of our language with students. As most teachers will quickly tell you, some students need a large amount of attention and positive language. It is often those students that we end up reminding about behaviors so often that also need the most positive language reinforcement. We need to balance all of that redirection and reminding with reinforcing language about when they are meeting expectations.
These are not shallow statements meant to just praise following rules; these should be statements that specifically identify a strength in what the student is doing in the moment:
- I noticed you picked up those pens that fell out of Aidan’s bag.
- I see that you have checked your work for capital letters and periods.
- Did you notice how everyone in the room was so focused during writing class today?
- You made sure everyone was included in the math game today.
Here are more examples. This takes more effort than just stating “Good job!” but it’s more helpful to students when you specifically state what they’re doing well. What we notice and name is what students will pay attention to, also. If I slip up and say a generic comment or I’m starting to just say something like, “Nice work!” I will just tag on an “I notice” statement afterwards. Again, these are sometimes patterns that are quite ingrained, so it takes time to develop new patterns of behavior in ourselves. I will force myself to just start with “I notice…” when I come up to a student and look for something nice to say.
#5 Wow! You did that so fast! You’re so smart!
Replacement: That seemed to be easy for you since you did it quickly. What can we do to challenge you a little more? Was there a part that was more challenging for you so we can work on that? Wow! You worked hard on that. I see your brain growing while you’re working on this. That mistake is helping you learn.
The initial comments of “You’re so smart!” and “Good job!” might feel like positive praise that a student needs to hear. Again, when we are thinking about reinforcing language, we do not want it to sound empty and vague. We want to be specific and praise students for sticking with a problem. Since learning and reading about growth mindset, I have strongly steered away from praising speed. I explain to students that fast reading does not necessarily mean it was good reading, and I discuss the different paces of reading. I talk with my slowest readers about how sometimes they are the deepest thinkers (which is true; students with dyslexia tend to make deeper connections and are more global thinkers even though their fluency is slow). I talk with students about how being able to come up with multiple strategies in math and being able to think flexibly is more important than getting the right answer quickly.
Now, my reinforcing language is often about recognizing when students are sticking with the same math worksheet and focused instead of getting frustrated about why they haven’t moved on. Or I’m glad they’re reaching for a difficult text and working through the words instead of giving up. Believing that students can achieve difficult things, trying to find appropriate challenges for them, and encouraging challenge is all part of having a growth mindset focus in your classroom. I have found this to be particularly important in math class where students, parents, and teachers all have held onto the belief that some people are capable of doing math or have a “math brain” and others don’t.
Here are some resources specifically around growth mindset in math from the fantastic website youcubed started by Jo Boaler. One resource that I have personally used in my classroom is her Week of Inspirational Math. You can select videos and resources to share with students that set up your classroom at the start of the year (or restart your math classroom midyear) with challenges. The lessons include such mindset shifts as “Brains Grow and Change,” “The Importance of Struggle,” and “Speed is not important.”
I have also worked to not get too excited when a student makes zero mistakes. I might instead point out to a student that they are ready for a more challenging page in their packet. When I select worksheets for students, I put together a variety of pages that have varying levels of difficulty. I can then direct students towards different pages and allow students to self-select their differentiation. If a student is choosing the easiest pages to complete and then is bored, I can have a conversation with them about their focus in class and how they should be persisting through a more difficult page instead of completing whatever they can the fastest. This also helps my conversations with parents because I can refer to their work in a way that shows if their child is on grade level and achieving or reaching for challenges or needing remediation.
Similarly, if a student is reading 3 books in their 15-minute independent reading station, I can have a conversation with them about “just right” books. It’s okay to read easy books, sometimes; we all enjoy a treat every once in a while, but it’s not helping you grow. I can point out to students that it seemed too easy for them because it was so fast, so they should try to slow down and read a more challenging book.
#6 You must write before you draw.
Replacement: Do you need to draw before you write to get into a flow? Use a sentence frame to get started. Could you draw out the word problem first?
I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase, but I think even when I was supporting in classrooms doing pre-service hours I noticed that there was a push towards focusing on the finished product. I’ve become more open to the idea of a thinking classroom where I want students to explore ideas and use thinking routines. I am less focused on the “correct” answer or final product when we are learning a new concept or in the beginning or middle of a unit of study. I realized that student writing tended to be better after they took time to think and draw. I also realized that student work in math tended to be deeper when students took time to draw or use manipulatives first. The way I feel I was trained to think was that drawing was something you did afterwards to explain what you wrote, add on if you had time, and make your work “prettier.”
I have almost gone the opposite way and tell students they should typically draw to get going and thinking or they should use manipulatives first. I noticed that most students benefit from the freeform thinking first; however, I think it should still be the student’s choice. We can present both starting with writing in sentences or in math, starting with numbers, or starting with pictures or manipulatives as valid options. Our brains work in different ways and the more we can share with students how to work WITH their own strengths, the better off they are. I have loved hearing students over time, share with confidence how they approached a problem. I also loved hearing how students might change their strategy day to day. “Today I felt like writing first because I had a great idea…” or “I wasn’t sure what to do first so I started with counters.” I love that the different approaches help students feel more confident in their own learning choices. It is empowering.
#7 We don’t need to talk about that at school.
Replacement: What makes you say that?
When a kid says “That’s gay” or brings up a high-tension subject or mentions someone’s race, I think many educators worry about saying the wrong thing or getting in trouble with a parent or an administrator. While not everyone has the privilege that I do as a white woman in society, since so many teachers are white women, I think it’s important for teachers in particular to take on the challenge of addressing these topics in the classroom. If a student says something that might feel uncomfortable for you to address, instead of shutting it down with “We don’t talk about that at school” or “Talk about that at home, please”, maybe try asking, “What makes you say that?” Your genuine curiosity might help a student reflect on their own word choice. What did they mean when they made that comment?
Help them reflect on whether it was truly kind or whether it comes from a place of knowledge or ignorance. In certain cases, it may help to define a word for a child, The word, ______ means _____. Is that what you mean right now? Can you see how using ____ word does not match what is going on here? If a child is pointing out a race, you can address an assumption head-on on such as, “What makes you say they come from Mexico?” or “What makes you think they are poor?” I can explain to students where someone was born and offer another perspective they might not have considered.
Almost every year I’ve taught I’ve had a student come in as an English learner with little to no English. These students have often gone to school in a home country where it was a very different experience of schooling for them there as it is here. My 2nd graders are particularly excited for new students and love the prospect of teaching someone English, but the lack of English often means in their mind that someone is uneducated.
They will tell me something like, “Wow! ____ did the math game with us and he understood how to add the numbers together!” They were genuinely happy, so maybe my first instinct would not be to chastise them saying, “That’s not nice” which it could be if they were saying he couldn’t play the game at all. I can still approach this interaction with curiosity, though. “Why might he still be able to play the game?” If they can’t answer me, I can explain, “He went to school before and he understands math. Do you think you can help him make more connections to math even without fully understanding English?” This type of dialogue can help students see their classmates as fully human with rich, complex lives they might not always see or understand. These types of conversations also remind me as the teacher of the language I’m using and how I want to talk about students and our classroom community.
#8 Always do your best
Replacement: What is your best today? Is this the best you could do with the time you had? How much time did you work on this? How focused were you during that time? Is this meeting expectations? Let’s look at the rubric/checklist together.
I brought this idea of avoiding the phrase “always do your best” up in a podcast interview I did with Angela a couple of years ago, and she ended up doing a full podcast episode around this idea. As a child, I was extremely perfectionistic. I loved pleasing teachers and doing the right thing. I enjoyed doing work well (and I still do!). I truly appreciate something done to a high standard; however, this can also get me into trouble.
In middle school, I was shifted from all general education classes to “extended” classes (aka advanced/gifted classes). I was quite stressed out by the changes in courses I had; the whole environment of 6th grade was a lot for me as an introverted, fairly shy student. I got an ulcer that year from the anxiety and stress of my school day and had to take medicine for it for a while. In fact, even when I felt better, I remember being anxious about going off of the medication. I would not have let this show to my teachers. I kept it all inside, and there was no way they would have known because my grades were exceptional, and it appeared as if I did all of my work without issues.
Also, I liked challenges so there were times when I was bored of the work I was doing and it would not have looked like I was stressed out over it. The messages I received from teachers were to do my best no matter what, to always raise my standards, to do more than was expected. Considering I naturally have this tendency, I could kick it into hyperdrive if a teacher focused on “doing your best” which to me translated as “do it perfectly and be THE best.” Since I became a teacher, I knew I didn’t want students to have this mindset reinforced by me. Sometimes good enough is good enough.
Instead of asking students for a generic “best,” have them compare their work with the standard. The standard might be a rubric or checklist you have provided. One thing I like to do in class is have students assess mentor papers or projects. They can use the rubric to grade a piece of work I’ve saved from previous years or one I’ve created. Often, students are quite critical of this work so it can help to clarify for them how I graded it. Their views and my views need to be in alignment in order for those evaluative grades to make sense. I would have appreciated this as a student instead of just imagining what I thought the teacher might want.
Some teachers worry this will stifle creativity, but I have not found that to be true. It helps students know where they should focus their effort and energy. Similarly, if I was stuck on something and would not stop my work, I can’t tell you the relief I would have had if someone had talked to me and said, “This is great work for 30 minutes. If you have more time, maybe you could have done more, but I only gave you 30 minutes.” As a student, I was expecting my absolute best at every moment. I panicked over timed writing assessments and timed work in general. If we can remind students that time affects our quality, I think that would be helpful in training students to focus on what matters most in each assignment. This is not just helpful for the classroom but helpful for life. We need to know as adults where to put our time and energy, what to prioritize, and how much time we have to spend on something.
#9 Okay? Right?
Replacement: Make your directions into statements and drop the questions.
One thing I’ve heard teachers say is adding “okay” or “right” onto the end of their directions. For instance, they might say, “It’s time to get out your notebooks, okay?” “You’re going to put that aside, right?” “We need to be nice, okay?” “First, you’ll open up a new Google doc, okay?” I think there are a few reasons why this might be a tendency. Foremost, it might be because teachers are actually looking for affirmation that students are paying attention and following along. I think it projects to students, however, a level of insecurity. It sounds like teachers are always asking for permission. If you’re asking students questions, they actually can say no to you.
When you add okay or right to a command, you’ll lift your voice up in tone and pitch because natural English speakers know this is how you ask questions and show you’re interested in an answer. The problem is when you’re giving a direction, you are not actually that interested in hearing a response. Even if you’re seeking confirmation that students are listening, no is not an answer you want. If you’re not genuinely asking a question, make it a direction and drop your pitch. When giving directions, we want to use a falling intonation where our tone of voice descends towards the end. If you’re not sure what I mean by this, here’s an article with examples of falling intonation.
Replacement: What makes you say that? Does anyone else see it differently? What else could I say about that? What else might be true? Do you think that’s what _____ thought about it? (Introduce a hidden perspective)
It happens to me fairly frequently that I will hear a student say something or notice a student doing something that truly surprises me or makes me take a second glance or wonder if I actually heard them correctly. It might be easier to just brush these weird instances aside or tell other students, “Don’t worry about it” or just ignore it with silence, but there might be some great moments for conversation in these statements. For example, I was sharing some images with my class this year of American Indian artifacts. One of the images was of a doll. A student called out in the moment, “That’s creepy!” I could have handled this in a variety of ways.
First, I could have reminded the student to not call out and to raise their hand. I could have nodded or made some complicit gesture that showed I understood what they meant. I could have stated, “That is not nice” or “That is a rude comment” which likely would have shut down the comment and conversation altogether. To be honest, with many of these types of comments, I want to jump in and say, “That is not kind.”
A very common solution, though, is to just be silent. If I don’t know what to say, I might just dismiss it. I was extremely tempted to do this, but I asked instead, “What makes you say that?” and then “Does anyone else see it differently?” In fact, several students DID see it differently. They shared connections that it reminded them of other dolls they’d seen, they shared how they made connections between this doll and their doll at home, they explained how it was more difficult to find materials to make those dolls so they thought it was really creative how the American Indians used natural materials to make toys. I didn’t have to have the solution. I didn’t have to defend the ideas I wanted to present; I could let my students speak and allow that discourse to happen. Was this a bit of a divergent topic from my original lesson? Yes. Was it meaningful? Absolutely! It was even something I came back to when we worked on creating our own dioramas of American Indian homes.
“What makes you say that?” has become one of my all-time favorite phrases. I first learned about it through Project Zero as a thinking routine. I use it all day long for responses to correct answers, incorrect answers, puzzling comments, and unkind phrases. I love that it gets students to pause and think. It’s not a command to explain their thinking or justify an answer; it comes from genuine curiosity. It helps me stay focused on the student and where their thinking is because that helps me be a better teacher.
I hope that this article has given you some food for thought and reflection in your teaching practice. I believe this type of reflection on our words is ongoing, and I hope that this is something I continue to practice in my own growth as an educator.
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