There’s no way for a teacher to get through a whole school year without blurting out the wrong thing a few times. Difficult mornings sometimes become insufferable afternoons, and kids of all ages know how to press adults’ buttons. When you do slip up, extend yourself some grace.
The good news? You can prepare to be supportive, and even practice before you step into the classroom. “One of the hardest things I had to do was learn how to change my ‘teacher’ language so that I could encourage and empower students on a daily basis,” confides sixth-grade teacher Alyssa Nucaro. In time, she concluded that “using powerful and effective teacher language takes a lot of practice and awareness.”
For professor of English education and former elementary and secondary teacher Todd Finley, being mindful about supportive language means surveying students about how they like to receive praise. Do they prefer “receiving acknowledgments via private or public oral communication? Do they want personal notes or notes home?” Finley even recommends that teachers keep track of who has received positive feedback: “Chart who you’ve praised so you can spread the love evenly,” he says.
Being intentional and reflective about the way you deploy language is the key. You can start by imagining common classroom scenarios that call for the thoughtful use of language—delivering hard feedback after considerable student effort, for example, or discussing academic or behavioral struggles—and walk through your responses mentally to make sure you hit the right notes. To find more advice on the productive use of language, we combed through teacher comments and articles by experienced educators to identify phrases that empower learners and create a supportive environment.
7 Phrases to Keep in Mind for Regular Use
1. “I believe in you.” Teachers are required to correct papers, hand out grades, and at times chastise poor behavior. That power dynamic can subtly undermine students’ self-confidence. Saying “I believe in you” is a powerful way to redress the imbalance and remind kids that you are there first and foremost to help and to serve—and that at the root of all of your feedback is an abiding belief in their uniqueness and their potential.
Finding language that blends constructive criticism with faith in the student’s ability can be delicate, but being straightforward generally works. In a seminal study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, when teachers used language like “I have high expectations” for an essay, for example, but “I know you can reach them,” the number of kids who submitted revisions doubled, from 40 percent to 80 percent.
2. “We missed you.” Instead of asking, “Where were you?” which can carry a note of suspicion—or simply sound like prying—try to respond to a student’s absence with a more positive twist. Say “We really missed you yesterday” to signal that you thought about the student when they weren’t there and to underscore that they are a valuable contributor to the classroom community.
3. “I’m listening.” Used as both a confirmation and an invitation—for example, as an open-ended prompt when a student looks troubled or starts to feel frustrated—the phrase “I’m listening” signals that there is space and respect for student voice in your classroom.
Experienced educators in our community are keen to remind fellow teachers not to jump in to fill the silence too quickly. Refrain from speaking directly after an “I’m listening,” and pair the phrase with body language—eye contact if the student is amenable to it, for example—that invites them to fill the vacuum and speak their mind.
4. “Oops, I made a mistake.” There are a thousand ways to say you messed up. Saying “That’s a real whopper!” or “I can’t believe I did that again!” can even convey the idea that academic or social miscues can be both frequent and humorous.
In several threads on Edutopia’s social media feeds, teachers emphasized that a certain comfort level with errors is essential to academic resilience in students. To reinforce this idea with their students, many educators weave preplanned mistakes into their lessons, stop to acknowledge and praise the thinking behind a student’s creative error, or pepper their instruction with references to epic mistakes that they’ve made themselves. While mistakes are never the objective, academic progress always involves failure—and actively challenging the taboo against academic error by saying “I made a mistake,” in whatever form you prefer, should be a regular occurrence in your classroom.
5. “We’ll figure it out together.” This deceptively simple phrase, suggested by teacher Ashley Oweazim in a recent Edutopia Instagram post, is more profound than it seems. In classrooms, where instruction tends to flow in one direction, collaborative language that positions the teacher and student as partners and co-learners flips the script and is subversive in all the right ways.
Students who are struggling with a concept and hear you say “We’ll figure it out together” retain a sense of agency, are reminded that even teachers need help, and are encouraged to think of themselves as competent, equal participants in a problem-solving exercise.
6. “You’ve really improved…” and “I really admire…” Feedback that is specific, measured, and focused on a student’s process or effort is motivating and actionable. But it also requires that teachers be attentive to the intricacies of a student’s learning journey.
When teachers notice and then articulate areas of academic progress by saying “You’ve really improved on your descriptive writing—I loved the way you described your family in this story,” for example, they signal that learning is a tangible, ongoing process powered by effort and persistence.
Steer clear of feedback that engages in hyperbole, lacks specificity, or praises ostensibly inherent qualities like intelligence. Research suggests that from the upper elementary grades on, students recognize praise that is inauthentic, and complimenting children for “being smart” or for outcomes like good grades reduces their tolerance for taking academic risks and stymies growth.
7. “I’m sorry.” Saying “I’m sorry” can be a bitter pill. It’s a frank admission of wrongdoing, and in classroom settings it can feel like ceding authority and thus losing ground in the struggle for discipline and focus. But a judicious use of “I’m sorry” also models one of the most powerful—and rarest—acts of civility and instantly humanizes the relationship between teachers and students. A simple, heartfelt “I’m sorry,” recommended by middle school teacher Haley Luckenbill in our Instagram post, instills trust, signals respect for the receiver, and makes you more accessible.