5 ridiculously unhelpful things I’ve said to students

I was recently chatting online with a teacher who was sharing how embarrassed she was at a recent interaction with a student. He was frustrated with something in class and she told him, “Stop crying and get back to work.” As we reflected on that together, she wrote:

Imagine how I would feel if I were crying and someone told me “Stop it, grown ups don’t act like that.” Well, how about you help me process my thoughts and feelings so I can behave better then? That’s what we have to do for our students….It is easier to lecture, berate, and shame than to support them in changing. In those times when we truly don’t have it in us to be the positive support our kids need, we’re better to be silent and then follow up later with a calm discussion than to speak out of frustration and anger.

That got me thinking about some really ineffective and unhelpful things I’ve said to students over the years. Here is the (short) list of statements I hope to have removed permanently from my vocabulary:

1. You’re in 3rd grade, you need to act like it!

What it really means: I expect you to demonstrate self-control every minute of the school day.

Why it’s ineffective: Last time I checked, third graders are 8 years old. 8 year olds tend to be silly, impulsive, and often times illogical. So every time I uttered this statement, my kids WERE acting like third graders…they just weren’t acting like the elusive Perfectly Behaved Third Grader I had envisioned in my mind.

What I’d say instead: I know you can do better than this. I believe in you.

2. Why are you doing that/Why do I see playing around/hear talking?

What it really means: Stop that right now!

Why it’s ineffective: In those moments, I’ve already decided there’s no good reason for anyone to be acting that way, so I don’t really want to hear what’s causing it or get into a debate with the kids about whether it’s justified. So, it’s better to replace those unproductive “why” questions with questions that inspire constructive responses from students and help them think about their behavioral choices.

What I’d say instead: What should you be doing right now?

3. That’s none of your business. Worry about yourself.

What it really means: I don’t feel like dealing with this or you right now.

Why it’s ineffective: Responding to tattling that way often tears down rather than build up a classroom community, and it’s confusing to kids. Do I want students to only worry about themselves, or do I want them to help each other? How are they supposed to know when to pay attention to what’s happening with their peers and when to only care about themselves? One minute I say, “Don’t just sit there, help her pick those crayons up!” and the next I say, “Do your work and let her take care of herself!” I say, “You knew he was writing those rude things on the cover of that book and you didn’t do anything?!” and then an hour later snap, “Worry about yourself—that doesn’t concern you!” It’s more effective to teach kids how to address problems with each other.

What I’d say instead: Did you talk to him/her about that?

5 things I regret saying to students

4. If you don’t want to learn, then you shouldn’t be here.

What it really means: I have no obligation to teach students who aren’t enthusiastic and compliant.

Why it’s ineffective: It’s just not true! Our job is to teach the students we have, not the ones we wish we had. I’ve actually taken the unhelpful statement a step further and said, “You don’t want to participate? Then leave!” and sent the kid to a coworker’s classroom for an hour or so. That solved the problem of my derailed lesson, but not the problem of the child’s disengagement. While I think it’s appropriate to remove a disruptive child sometimes, it shouldn’t be done with the premise that the student is only welcome in the classroom when they are fully invested in their learning. I’m also uncomfortable with making the determination that a child is not going to learn–sometimes kids get sucked into a lesson halfway through, but if we remove them from the room at the first sign of disinterest, they don’t get the opportunity to self-correct. I tended to have a knee-jerk reaction to certain students: I’d anticipate a behavior problem and give up on the student before they even did anything wrong: “Oh, you’re going to sigh because I said to take out a pencil? GO!” Talk about an overreaction!

What I’d say instead: We’re counting on you to participate with this and we want you to join in appropriately. If you choose not to, please sit at the table over there so your group can continue working. You’re welcome to re-join anytime you’re ready. [If needed: If you choose not to complete the assignment, we can talk later about the consequences for that.]

5. Do you want to get a zero/repeat 3rd grade? Then you need to get to work!

What it really means: I am terrified that you’re going to fail and I’m going to be held accountable for it.

Why it’s ineffective: I’ve uttered this question when I’m frustrated because I feel like I’m more invested in the student’s success than s/he is. However, if you’ve ever threatened a child with repeating the grade level or course, then you know it’s a generally a poor motivator and does not inspire them to care on the same level that you do. It might get them back on task for the moment, but it does nothing to build their confidence. It creates anxiety and raises the stakes for a task that they already find difficult and uninteresting. Why not stop with the dramatics and just help the kid get back on task?

What I’d say instead: Which part are you stuck on? How can I help?

While I’m betting you probably recognize yourself a bit in this post, I hope you won’t rush to defend practices that could probably use improvement, and I hope you won’t condemn yourself. These are not 5 statements that make you a bad teacher: they’re just things that I have stepped back from, reflected on, and decided, “Yeah, that was a pretty ridiculous thing to say in that moment and not helpful to my kids. Next time, I’m going to try to respond more productively.” The only way to become more effective in our interactions with students is to reflect on our practice, and I hope my words today have been a jumping off point for you to think about some of your common phrases that could use replacing.

Share your thoughts with us! Is there anything you’ve caught yourself saying to students that you would never want to repeat? What are the ineffective responses you say a lot and are trying to move away from?

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jackie Richter August 8, 2014 at 9:09 am

Angela:

I love your blog because of it’s honest and reflective discussion of the real art of teaching. I truly appreciate that you are putting out there that teachers make mistakes, get frustrated, and sometimes respond in less-than-the-best ways. I agree that sometimes these words fly out of our mouths before we get a chance to think about the impact. The important thing is to make sure that we are cognizant of our mistakes and work to be better next time. I know that I have said, in some form or other, all of the above. I also know that every day I strive to do a better job at creating a welcoming community for all students. Teachers are people too, so thanks for keeping it real!

Jackie

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2 Angela Watson August 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Thank you for those kind words, Jackie! I appreciate that. You are so right that the point is to keep striving to get better. Our words have tremendous power, and learning to harness them for students’ GOOD is the ultimate goal.

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3 Michelle Stein August 8, 2014 at 7:54 pm

I so appreciate your honestly and willingness to look within rather than blaming students for “those” moments. What struck me about each of your ‘5 things’ was that the common thread is these are words borne from our own frustration. We want the students to engage, but easily forget that full engagement 100% of every class, every day is simply unrealistic. How wonderful is your reminder to be human; for US to stop and acknowledge the student’s motivations before responding. Hard to do, but oh, so worthwhile! This was a fabulous reminder as I begin my 13th year on Monday!

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4 Angela Watson August 8, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Wow, congrats on 13 years, Michelle! You are so right about the need to remember that students are HUMAN. They are not little data-producing machines we can just download information into and expect uniform results. We have to actively fight against the pressure to internalize that falsehood no matter how much it is perpetuated by the system. We are all real people with real needs and emotions.

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5 Samantha Mosher August 8, 2014 at 8:49 pm

I really appreciate your honesty and candor. I’ve definitely gotten frustrated with students and said some of these things. It’s so easy for teachers to get frustrated with ourselves after the fact. It’s nice to have another teacher say “I’ve been there, this is what I do differently now” instead of “don’t do that.” Thank you!

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6 Angela Watson August 8, 2014 at 10:22 pm

Thank you, Samantha. I’m not sure I can promise that this is what I do differently now and that none of these things will ever come out of my mouth again. Old habits die hard! But I’m definitely much more aware of these phrases so I can correct myself/apologize if I say something unhelpful. We’re all just works in progress. :)

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7 Mel the Literacy Coach August 9, 2014 at 12:59 am

Hi Angela,
Thanks for sharing your experiences. I don’t know many teachers who could honestly say that they have never said at least one of those unhelpful phrases (or a version of them). It is hard to be the most helpful and responsible person in the room sometimes! Reflection and having a plan for when the situation comes up again is such an important step for teachers to take. You were completely correct when you said that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves too. Teachers are human (despite what our kids might think) and when we are with the same kids day in and day out we will sometimes say what we are really thinking instead of using the carefully thought out response that we know would be more helpful. I’m glad that you were brave enough to be honest about your own practice and share your reflections- it helps all of us to become better and more reflective teachers. =) Keep at it!

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8 Angela Watson August 9, 2014 at 1:02 am

Thanks, Mel! I love this statement of yours: “It is hard to be the most helpful and responsible person in the room sometimes!” That is so, so true. It is hard to have to always be the mature, responsible, patient one whenever everyone around you is…not. :)

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9 Justin August 9, 2014 at 8:54 am

Thanks for this. It takes courage to admit what you did. I appreciate what you wrote!

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10 Angela Watson August 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Thank you, Justin!

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11 Jennifer Gonzalez August 9, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Angela Watson!! This is fantastic. I love the substitute phrases, because that’s where we can really start to retrain ourselves to say something more helpful. Thank you for this!

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12 Angela Watson October 3, 2014 at 1:12 am

You’re welcome, Jennifer! :)

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13 Terri Eichholz August 10, 2014 at 6:08 pm

I did a post about this last December about stupid questions I’ve asked in the classroom – like, “Why do I hear people talking?” Here is the link: http://goo.gl/7eUOI2 Since then, I could probably add about ten more that I’ve asked recently 😉

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14 Angela Watson August 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm

LOVE this, Terri, just tweeted it! I especially relate to: “Weren’t you listening when I gave the directions?” I never thought about that one, but it is SUCH a silly question.

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15 Terri Eichholz August 10, 2014 at 10:49 pm

I love your post because you give alternatives! Great suggestions!

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16 Jen September 15, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Sometimes I say, “Who is making that noise?” when I fully know who it is. Other kids jump in to tattle when I really meant for them to just stop. My favorite, though, was when my hubby told our 5 year old son to act like an adult. At least I’ve never done that!

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17 Angela Watson October 3, 2014 at 1:13 am

Yes, I’ve said “Who is making that noise” and you’re right, they kids take it as a literal question, answer me, and then I get mad because they answered a question I asked them! LOL! Ridiculous.

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18 Betsy October 9, 2015 at 10:54 pm

On point!! Very helpful!

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19 Krysta January 9, 2016 at 8:35 pm

The conversation that always frustrated me.. “How do you spell____?” “Go look it up in the dictionary.” … To find it in the dictionary I would have to be able to spell it. I went to an elementary school that decided to see if phonics were needed, I still don’t understand it and I have a degree in (art) education! I’m homeschooling a kendergardener and I’m seeing this stuff with him for the first time. Long and short vowels still confuse me.

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20 Hiedi January 19, 2016 at 9:36 pm

Hello.

Number 4 is too real. This is my first year teaching and I’m surprised how often I think about how much work I’m doing when most of my students don’t seem to care about thier education. I think it’s also harder for me to think of them as kids because I have a lot of overage students (18, 19, and 20). I feel like they should already know how to behave and what is expected but most of the time it seems like they need to go back to kindergarten.

Thank you for sharing you suggestions on how to respond to these situations!

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21 Angela Watson January 30, 2016 at 6:58 pm

So glad it was helpful! You are not alone with thinking kids “should” know what to do. I taught PreK for several years and even fell into that trap with kids who had only been in school a few months!

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