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13 Common Sayings to Avoid

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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When I was a new teacher in middle school several centuries ago, I occasionally said things to students that I later regretted. In the last few years, I have witnessed or heard teachers say additional regretful things to students. Recently I asked students in my graduate courses (all practicing teachers) if they ever told their students anything they regret. After hearing these regrets and talking with children about what teachers said that bothered them, I compiled a list of things that never should be said.

I've narrowed my list to 13 representative items. Some of these are related to control issues, others to motivation, and still more to management. All reflect frustration and/or anger. Let's start the upcoming school year by wiping these sayings out of our vernacular.

1. "You have potential but don't use it."

Students feel insulted when they hear this, and while some accept it as a challenge to do better, more lose their motivation to care. Instead, say in a caring way, "How can I help you reach your full potential?"

2. "I'm disappointed in you."

Of course we occasionally are disappointed in things that our students do. In addition, the result of openly expressing that disappointment depends as much on the way we say it as the words we use. But students have told me that they hate hearing a teacher say this. The problem with this saying is that it looks to the past. A more helpful approach looks to the future. The alternative might be more like, "What do you think you can do to make a more helpful decision the next time you are in a similar situation?"

3. "What did you say?"

This is the challenge that some teachers might throw down when walking away from a student after a private discussion about behavior and hearing that student whisper something. "What did you say?" is just bait for escalation. Do you really want to know what was whispered? It's better to ignore that unheard comeback and move on. You don't always need to have the last word.

4. "If I do that for you, I'll have to do it for everyone."

In our book, Discipline With Dignity, Al Mendler and I make a strong case for the policy that fair is not equal. You can't treat everyone the same and be fair. Each student needs what helps him or her, and every student is different. Further, no one wants to think of him- or herself as one of a herd. It's better to say, "I'm not sure if I can do that, but I'll do my best to meet your needs in one way or another."

5. "It's against the rules."

Rules are about behavior. Often there are many behaviors from which people can choose in order to solve a problem. Some may be within the rules. Try saying this instead: "Let me see if there's a way to meet your need within the rules."

6. "Your brother/sister was better than you."

Never compare siblings or anyone else in a positive or negative way about anything. Comparisons can only lead to trouble regardless of which side of the coin the student is. My grandchildren always ask me, "Who's your favorite?" What if I actually gave an answer?

7. "I like the way Toby is sitting."

This is a manipulation to get the class to sit down. Saying this teaches children that manipulation works. It's better to be direct and tell the truth by saying, "Class, please sit down." In addition, any student who is never publicly singled out for something positive will resent you. While I used to employ this technique myself, I think the downside far outweighs the good, even if it works.

8. "You'll never amount to anything."

Not only is this an insult, but it is usually wrong. When I was young, I was told that I would never be a teacher. How many great people have been told this? How many of you have heard it?

9. "Who do you think you are?"

Do you really need to know who they think they are? This question is meant to say, "You are not as important as me!" This communicates sheer arrogance and is asking for a power struggle.

10. "Don't you ever stop talking?"

This is a snide way of asking the student to stop talking. Never start with a question like, "Don't you ever _______?" You can fill in any behavior or attitude: "listen," "do your homework," "try," "care about your work." Avoid the sarcasm and directly say what you are feeling.

11. "I'm busy now."

Don't dismiss a student this abruptly if they need you in some way. Show that you care by saying, "I'm very busy now, but you are very important to me. Unless this is an emergency, let's find a better time to talk. I really want to hear what's on your mind."

12. "The whole class will miss _______ unless someone admits to _______."

Collective punishment is never appropriate. There are many reasons why we should avoid collective punishment, but the most important is that if we want students to learn how to take responsibility for their behavior, they need somewhat predictable outcomes for their choices. When they're punished for something they didn't do, they see the world as an unpredictable place where consequences have nothing to do with choices. This is not what we want children to learn.

13. "What is wrong with you?"

This question implies a defect or an imperfect student. We are all imperfect, so the question is really only intended as an insult. What do you expect the student to answer? "I'm the son of abusive parents who hate me?" I have heard many professionals say that everyone is perfect at being who they are. A better approach is to say something like, "I see you have a problem. Let's work together to find a solution."

If a teacher loses his temper or gets frustrated and says one of these things once or even twice during the year, it's understandable. For most students, a rare mishap makes no difference with a teacher who they respect and like. But if trust hasn't been established, students are less forgiving when they feel insulted or wronged. On the other hand, we can say something nice or neutral that might be heard by a student as an insult. These instances are hard to avoid. What we can avoid is saying things that we know in advance are hurtful.

I wonder if any readers wish to add to my list.

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Amber von Nagel's picture

Maryann, it's great to hear your son is taking control of his future, and that he has such a great mom who's there to support him, his dreams, and his ambitions.

Alexis Radney Mercedes's picture

The wise educator, in dealing with his pupils, will seek to encourage confidence and to strengthen the sense of honor. Children and youth are benefited by being trusted. Many, even of the little children, have a high sense of honor; all desire to be treated with confidence and respect, and this is their right. They should not be led to feel that they cannot go out or come in without being watched.

Marissa Anne's picture

I was also surprised by number 7. I think the way you say it can make a difference. Saying "I like how..." could be seen as manipulation because you are bringing personal preference into it by saying "I like...". Being more specific about the behavior may be more appropriate and help to remind the students of what you expect. For example "I see that Toby and Anna are ready to start because they are sitting down and their eyes are on me. We will start when everyone in our class is ready." I was one of those students who always checked myself when the teacher said "We can't start because not everyone is ready." It was helpful to me as a student to know that I was behaving in the expected way, even if others in the class were not.

MichaelEdits's picture
Author, editor, proofreader, book junkie, hiking nut, NFL addict, cat lover

The worst ones are the ones that actually attack the student as a person. I've never told a student any of these, fortunately, although more than one has made me angry. The worst are "you'll never amount to anything" and "what is wrong with you?"

As for the beloved "Who do you think you are?", that's what I heard many moons ago when I was a security guard keeping people off movie sets when they didn't have badges. I rather liked that reaction.

Charles Flannery's picture

#8 is the absolute worst and if told to a student repeatedly can ultimately bring them down and stop trying. I was told this as a kid and it was tough. Even in college when I had some issues I needed address, I was basically told to give up. Thankfully I didn't listen and it only fueled me to try even harder because I had such anger towards the people that told me this that I wanted to prove them wrong. And I did, ultimately completing my bachelor's AND Master's. However kids may not have that sort of reverse motivation if you will so in my opinion, encouragement and positive reinforcement are the way to go, even if you must do it in steps.

Beth's picture

Another bad one: "You should put 100% into all that you do." Nope: kids need to learn to prioritize obligations and adjust effort according when time is a limiting factor (which it will be at some point in their life).

cyllima's picture

as a student , I want to say please don't do number 8, it's really disheartening, a student probably already feels negative, try and be more positive towards them. isolation isn't good either .

Miss. Bridget Biggins's picture
Miss. Bridget Biggins
I am a Private Preschool Teacher working in a Christian Online Preschool and will soon have my in person PreK-3rd Grade School.

Please do not say words like what are you smiling at? Wipe that smile off of your face!
Because when the Admin. Hear you say that it makes you look bad as a teacher.

am179119's picture

I disagree with the fact that you cannot use these for varying degrees--or, rather, the suggestions the author gives in place of these. I particularly disagree with the 1st one. Sure, I wouldn't tell a student that they are not living up to his/her potential, but I would not use the phrase she suggests. This implies that the responsibility in reaching one's potential lays in the hands of others and not the student, but that is just not how the world works. I work in a school where it is very service-oriented (i.e. instructors are more of service providers) and we are asked to use phrases like this, and it makes the students we teach--who are adults, by the way-- feel needy and babied, like they cannot succeed without us. I think other phrases in which we say "what steps can you take and what types of support do you need?" places responsibility in the students' hands. If they say they need YOU as support because you are a mentor or trusted person, then you can proceed with, "in what ways can I work with you so you can reach your potential because I really do care about your success" but anything other than that is quite literally babying them.

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