10 Common Phrases Teachers Should Never Say to Students

common phrases teachers should never say to students - banner

When it comes to common phrases you should never say to students, there’s a few categories that fall into that realm:

– Things-you-should-never-say-because-they-could-land-you-in-jail
– Things-you-should-never-say-because-students-will-twist-your-words
– Things-you-should-never-say-because-they-will-suppress-anyone’s-desire-to-learn.

Most teachers with common sense find it easy to avoid the first set of phrases.  Experience teaches you the second group (quite often the hard way). But the third category may sometimes elude teachers as they attempt to manage behavior while they simultaneously motivate their students.

Of course, there are the obvious taboo statements, such as, “Shut up,” and, “That’s a stupid question.”  However, there are many things we may be tempted to voice because we have heard other teachers and adults say in the past that time and research have shown to be ineffective and sometimes completely discouraging.

01. “Act your age.”

Also phrased as, “You are acting like a ____________,” with the blank filled in with someone younger (1st grader, 2-year-old, etc…).  This may be the first comment that comes to mind when a student begins to cry or have an angry tantrum.  However, I can guarantee that it will not bring you the magical result of a suddenly mature student (or spouse – trust me on that one).  

Alternative

“I can see that you’re upset.  When you’re ready to talk about it, I’ll be ready to listen.”  Not sure that quite fits the situation?  Huffington Post offers 26 more phrases to calm an angry child here.

02. “You’re so smart!”

Does this one surprise you?  Many people think they are actually giving a compliment when they say this.  However, recent studies seem to indicate that the implication of that statement is that the student was fortunate enough to be born with the necessary intelligence to perform the assigned task flawlessly – which also implies the student’s performance has nothing to do with effort.  When the student inevitably attempts something that does not come easily, he or she may quickly give up because of a belief that there’s no point trying things that good genetics haven’t already perfected.   

Alternative

“I saw how hard you worked to get through that difficult part of the problem,” helps the student to see the value of effort.  What if that doesn’t fit the situation? Here is a great list of better ways to praise from Angela Stockman that should suit most classroom scenarios.

03. “Weren’t you listening the first time?”

It’s quite often the same students who regularly don’t hear our instructions; asking the student to explain why he or she didn’t find our words captivating enough to pay close attention to them just wastes everyone’s time.

common phrases teachers should avoid - 3 - listen

Alternative

Rather than taking it personally that we aren’t the center of our students’ universe, we can accommodate those who are more visual than auditory by putting the instructions up on the screen or board.  Here are 5 other listening strategies from Edutopia.

04. “I can’t hear you.”

And then there are the students who speak in a whisper, making it impossible for you or their classmates to hear their responses.  Asking quiet students to speak up generally becomes a comical exchange as you try to tell them to yell like they are on the playground, and their volume actually decreases.  I have tried various pleas and suggestions over the years, even bribes, but the only result I’ve ever gotten is wide eyed students who look like they would gladly jump off the top of the monkey bars at recess if it would mean never having to speak in my classroom again.

common phrases teachers should avoid - 4 - hear

Alternative

If your school’s budget allows, install a classroom amplification system.  Student response systems, such as Kahoot, Socrative, or Plickers, can help you check for understanding while allowing for public anonymity.

05. “Maybe you’re just not a math person.”

Despite the apparent disconnect, “You’re so smart,” and “Maybe you’re just not a math person,” are closely related.  By categorizing students as “math people” and “not math people,” we imply that one is either born with numerical prowess or not – and that there is no point in trying very hard if you are one of the unfortunate ones in the latter group.  Scholars like JoAnn Boaler at Stanford University are trying hard to disabuse people of this notion by promoting a growth mindset in math.

common phrases teachers should avoid - 5 - math person

Alternative

“You haven’t figured it out yet, so let’s see what might be the problem.”  Boaler and her colleagues offer many resources, including 2 Weeks of Inspirational Math on their website, YouCubed.org.

06. “I can’t give you credit because you didn’t show your work.”

This can be extremely frustrating for bright students who have such a good grasp on a particular skill that they can work it out mentally.  In fact, some students may choose not to do the work at all because they resent being slowed down by writing out every step.  There are times, however, when showing work is important so the teacher can identify if there is true understanding of the concept.

Alternative

For students who have proven their ability, compromise on how much work must be shown – perhaps making a deal that they have to be able to show their work on any problem you choose in order to receive credit for all of their right answers.

07. “I thought you were smart” or “This should be easy for you”

These are definitely not motivational statements.  If a student is having difficulty with something, it’s important not to belittle his or her struggle as it will likely just increase the feelings of panic and frustration.

common phrases teachers should avoid - 7 - thought smart

Alternative

“Maybe you should try to look at this a different way.”  Also, it can also be helpful to suggest the student take a break to do an easier task, and then return to the challenge.

08. “I never give A’s.”

This will discourage more students than the few (if any) that it motivates.  One of my college professors stated this at the beginning of the semester, and fulfilled his promise by returning every one of my assignments underlined completely in red and an unexplained “B” at the top of the paper.  If you are trying to communicate that you have high expectations and don’t appreciate slackers, telling students that even hard workers aren’t good enough in your professional opinion certainly won’t increase their drive to do their best.

common phrases teachers should avoid - 8 - noa

Alternative

Frequent constructive feedback and clear expectations are some of the most important communications you can have with your students.  In fact, relying on grades to shape their learning is not good teaching practice because it decreases interest in learning.  Some educators, like Staar Sackstein, are part of a growing movement that advocates for eliminating grades.  You can read more about it in her book, Hacking Assessment.

09. “Please sit still.”

Despite the apparent politeness of this statement (which could change, depending on the tone), this sentence will most likely lose its effect after you use it 25 times a day – particularly if it is aimed at the same student each time.  More and more teachers are realizing that giving students plenty of opportunities for movement during the school day can actually increase attention spans as well as learning.    A search on Donors Choose, the site that allows teachers to crowdfund classroom supplies, will yield endless pages of teachers who have specifically required various items to allow for “flexible seating” in their classrooms.

Alternative

Give students options, such as standing desks or stability balls.  Here are some great suggestions on affordable flexible seating from Teach2Love.  Also, be sure to incorporate times for movement during the day using programs like GoNoodle, especially if you have a self-contained classroom.

10. “I really like the way Johnny did his assignment.”

Using other students as good examples may seem like a great way to inspire the rest of the class, but it may generate resentment for Johnny and also cause the others to second-guess their own performance on the lesson. (“Why didn’t she choose mine to show the class?”) Older students certainly see through this manipulation and may be less inclined to put effort into their own work for rebellious reasons.

common phrases teachers should avoid - 10 - betterthan

Alternative

“Here is an example of an exemplary assignment I received from a student (no name) in the past.  Let’s talk about what this student did to make his work stand out.”  Doing this before or during an assignment gives students an opportunity to get a better idea of your expectations without incurring jealousy or frustration.

As teachers, we need to realise that there are some things we can say that may result in compliance, but won’t necessarily contribute to shaping our students into better learners.  One good rule to remember is that if something you’ve said or done doesn’t have the desired effect multiple times, then it should be changed.  It’s also important not to be too hard on yourself if one of these common phrases does slip out every once in awhile.  Since these aren’t part of the “things-you-should-never-say-because-they-could-land-you-in-jail” category, no great harm is done when you impulsively blurt out, “You’re so smart,” or, “Weren’t you listening the first time?”  However, regularly using these expressions won’t do you or your students any favours in the long run.

What is interesting about our profession is that we often say things that we would never find ourselves saying anywhere else.  The next time you say something you regret, instead of berating yourself,  you may want to amuse yourself with this list –  “Stop Rolling Your Tomatoes on the Floor and 49 Other Things You Thought You Would Never Say as a Teacher” curated by Jennifer Larson.  Such classics as, “ No, the eraser can’t be pooped out if it disappears down your nose,” and, “Jimmy, please stop asking people to smell your wood,” (the latter apparently having been uttered during shop class) will remind you that we all have moments when it’s impossible to suppress the first response that comes to mind!

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Terri Eichholz teaches gifted students in Kinder through 5th grades in San Antonio, TX. She's been an educator for 24 years, and is a proponent of guiding students to create, problem-solve, and personalize their own learning. You can read more on her blog, "Engage Their Minds," or follow her on Twitter (@terrieichholz).

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