The way we speak to our students holds more power than we think. Our tone and word choice can either motivate our students or make them recoil in anger and frustration. The language we use can also be ineffective and won’t get us the desired results in our classroom. I realized I needed to work on my teacher language after taking a week-long Responsive Classroom course last summer. I have made three important changes to my teacher language that has given me more control in the classroom. 

1. I’ve stopped (well, mostly) saying “thank you”

Growing up in the south has trained me to make sure everybody is thanked for every small thing they do. It’s ingrained in me to the point that I don’t even notice when I say it. Even though it seems like a harmless phrase, saying “thank you” to a student for certain actions can backfire. 

“Thank you” should be reserved for when a student does a genuine favor for you, like when you accidentally drop something and they go out of their way to pick it up for you. Using “thank you” when a student does something that is already a classroom expectation (pushing in their chair, raising their hand, putting materials away properly) makes the student think they’ve done you a favor. This is problematic because it confuses expectations with being optional, to be done only when the student is feeling helpful. 

“Thank you” should be reserved for when a student does a genuine favor for you, like when you accidentally drop something and they go out of their way to pick it up for you Click To Tweet

I noticed that I used “thank you” a lot to soften the blow of giving directions to students who were in a bad mood. Even though I thought I was making it better, my “thank yous” were probably patronizing at best. 

What to say instead: make an observational statement that recognizes the desired behavior like “I see some 5th graders putting all of their materials away” or “I notice 3rd graders who are quietly reading.” Even though this might not at first register as an approving statement like “thank you,” you can change the tone of your voice to sound celebratory or even give a thumbs up. Telling students what they are doing right also reinforces the expectations for next time. 

2. Don’t…

A lot of teachers struggle with this one because it often seems necessary, especially if followed by a statement to protect student safety like “don’t run” or “don’t cut each other with scissors.” However, when we only tell students what not to do, we aren’t telling them what they should be doing. If we aren’t providing solutions, it is likely that they will continue the undesired behavior. 

What to say instead: keep it very short, even for older kids. Approach the student so as not to call them out in front of everyone, and give a short command. If your directions are too long, what you actually want them to do will get lost in the long-winded explanation. Telling a 6th grader “sit down” is more effective than “stop getting up because each time you’re distracting other students.” Give the command, and then if necessary you can have a conversation with the student later when the moment has passed and everyone is calm. 

If a student is doing something unsafe, immediately go to the child and give a firm “stop.” Once the child stops the unsafe behavior, give another short command like “scissors in the basket.” If the behavior is extremely unsafe or has already harmed the child or another student, follow your school guidelines which may require a call for an administrator or resource officer. 

3. I like…

We all know this one. A student approaches you, holds out their work and says “do you like it?” You’re sitting there thinking, “well, what am I going to tell the kid?” Most people’s reaction would be to say “yes,” even if it isn’t true. However, telling a student you like their work can be ineffective for a couple of reasons. 

First, telling a student you like their work doesn’t tell the student what was successful about the work, nor does it point out areas of opportunity. If the student were to write another argumentative essay, they wouldn’t know how to replicate the parts that were effective. Telling a student you like their work also does not encourage the student to be reflective and independent. If you allow the student to approach you each time and you give the same answer of “yes,” the student will always be seeking your approval instead of becoming an intrinsically motivated and independent learner. Finally, telling students you like their work can equate doing academic work with pleasing the teacher. This doesn’t help students because the purpose of academics is not to satisfy the teacher but to learn and grow. 

What to say instead: 

There are a number of things you can say to your student if they approach you to ask if you like their work. Sometimes I flip the question around on them and ask “well, do you like it? Why?” Asking them why they like it helps them identify what was successful about their assignment. I would also encourage the student to repeat that successful aspect the next time they have a similar assignment. 

Instead of asking if the student likes their work, you could jump right into what you notice the student did that met a particular standard. For example, when asked “do you like it?” you could say “I noticed that you included very descriptive details about your characters. That’s what great writers do!”

Teachers aren’t robots, so of course, if a student has done something cool, you’re allowed to tell them so. However, if they’re looking for your approval on their classwork, make sure you say something that sets them up to be reflective, independent learners. 

Teacher Language

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