It is much easier to destroy than to build. Teachers work with young people, and they are fragile works-in-progress. A rash or unfeeling word can undo so much of the trust and growth that we strive for.
As the year winds down and spring fever kicks in, some of us may be feeling weary. Yet no matter what happens, there are some words so destructive that they should never be uttered by a teacher.
5. “I know this may seem pointless but we have to get through it…”
I said this a few times early in my career, always related to standardized test prep. It isn’t psychologically devastating (see #1 and #2 for that), but it helps no one. If you’re forced to follow a less-than-stimulating curriculum, dress it up and sell it however you can in front of the kids. Apologizing for it doesn’t help anyone learn or grow; it only weakens you.
4. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Many of us feel like frauds at times. We take on enormous responsibility for many young people, and it’s often a Herculean task just to keep things from collapsing. But you can’t say it to kids. They see you as a responsible, professional grown-up, whether you feel like one or not. Honesty is a virtue, but as a teacher, your top priority is building a safe and trustful environment for student learning. Showing your hand as confused or hapless undermines your ability to do that. Kids will remember that you’re the teacher who said that, and it will haunt you.
Saying “I don’t know,” in the classroom can be great. Certainly, there are plenty of times when teachers don’t know something and those moments can invite shared discovery with the students. Modeling curiosity is really important.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” is a different thing. Students hear it as admitting underpreparedness or a frazzled state of mind. It’s not something I want to hear the president say; it’s not something I want to hear my daughter’s teacher say.
3. “The other class did well with this. What’s wrong with you guys?”
People don’t like to be negatively compared to other people. Instead of “the other class,” insert anything: your brother, your cousin, my child…
It gets taken as an insult, not a motivator. Teachers should aim to make the students in front of them feel like— while they are together— they are the most important people in that teacher’s world. When the bell rings and people go their separate ways, things may change, but students don’t like to hear teachers praising absent students at their own expense.
2. “You will never be able to (fill in the blank).”
Whether or not you think this is true, you can’t say it. Actually, you don’t really know if that student will never be able to become a crime scene investigator, pass the AP Calculus exam, or read Ulysses. By making the comment, though, you are actively working against their achievement.
1. THE ABSOLUTE WORST AND MOST FREQUENTLY REMEMBERED WOUNDING, TRUST-SHATTERING WORDS:
“I get paid whether you (fill in the blank) or not.”
Always spoken in moments of frustration, these words are fatal. Whether intended or not, students hear it as “I don’t care about you.” There is no more damaging message a teacher can send.
What other third-rail words should never be said in a classroom?
This post was updated April 17, 2012. Follow Dan Brown on Twitter: @danbrownteacher.