Teacher language can be a great focus for a New Year’s resolution. After all, we all use language with students, and we all surely have some habits that could use some refinement. Often, some of our language habits don’t line up with our best intentions. If you’re looking for a new teacher language goal, here are 4 things to stop saying to your students.
Stop Saying, “I Like the Way You…”
The conventional wisdom behind this language habit is that we need to be positive with children and praise them when they do well. After all, it seems to make sense that the more children are praised, the better they feel, and the better they feel, the more motivated they will be. We also know how important it is to form positive relationships with students and giving them our approval seems like a good place to start.
As it turns out, this language habit might backfire in a couple of ways. The first is that it might actually decrease students’ intrinsic motivation. When we say, “I like the way you worked so hard on that math problem,” or “Thank you for being so polite,” we actually send the message that these things are about pleasing us instead of learning or being kind for their own sakes.
Also, when we praise children using the language of our approval, we may actually indicate that our approval is conditional—on their work or behavior. To children, this can easily be interpreted as “My teacher likes me when I do the right thing and doesn’t like me when I make a mistake.” Children who struggle with positive behavior (the ones who most need unconditional love and acceptance) will most likely get messages that will make it almost impossible for them to thrive in school.
Instead, try to judge less and notice more. Instead of praising children’s behavior and work, recognize it and talk with them about it.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, sarcasm is “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain.” While irony is saying one thing while meaning another (“It’s such a beautiful day” when it’s raining), sarcasm is using irony to hurt someone’s feelings (“That was a brilliant question—I’m so glad you were paying attention” when a student asks a question you feel you just answered).
Would it be okay if a student said to you, “Well, that was a well-organized lesson!” after you fumbled your way through a lesson? Probably not–it would feel incredibly disrespectful. Sarcasm is a way of exerting power over students in a mean-spirited way, and it may actually model bullying behavior. If kids need a safe and predictable learning environment, sarcasm creates the opposite.
Instead, try to be respectful and direct.
Don’t Talk Down to Students
In Judy Blume’s MasterClass on writing for children, she talks about the importance of treating children as people: “If I meet a five year-old, I want to talk to that five year-old as a person, not as an adult saying, ‘You’re such a cute little thing!’ (even if she is a cute little thing—and she probably is). Because we don’t ever want to lose sight of the fact that children are human beings.…”
If we want children to take charge of their learning—to feel what Peter Johnston calls a sense of agency—we need to talk with them in ways that empower them. We should take their ideas seriously and ask them real questions about their thinking. Let’s spend more time talking with students about their work and learning and less time commenting on how adorable or sweet they’re being.
Even when we use this language to build rapport, it can come off as patronizing or condescending. Try speaking with your students in the same tone and manner that you would want to be addressed by a warm and supportive administrator.
Stop Saying So Much (Talk Less, Smile More)
Aaron Burr was onto something. When one person is doing all of the talking, everything feels like it is about that person. If we want school to feel student-centered instead of teacher-centered, we should talk less and get kids to talk more.
Here are a few ideas for reducing teacher-talk:
- Use non-verbal recognition to show you’re paying attention to what kids say in a class discussion. Instead of responding to every kids’ comment, smile, nod, raise your eyebrows, or use other cues to show that you’re engaged.
- Also during class discussions, have students who have shared an idea chose the next student to speak. Instead of a class discussion looking like a ping-pong game between 20 students and a teacher, it looks more like a basketball team passing to each other.
- Use partner chats and small group discussions frequently so that all students have a chance to speak.
- When teaching online, use the chat box to allow all students to share ideas and bounce ideas off of each other.
- Don’t echo students. Be careful you don’t get into the habit of saying back what students share. Again, non-verbal cues can help. If students can’t hear each other, encourage them to ask each other to speak up or repeat what they said.
If You Want to Change a Language Habit…
Changing language habits can be hard, so I recommend picking just one habit to work on at a time. Be clear with yourself about why you’re working on that habit, and then find a couple of concrete and practical strategies to help. For example, you might write a couple of sentence starters on some sticky notes where you’ll see them. Or you might ask students to help you catch an unwanted phrase. Then, be patient with yourself as you stumble along the way—that’s part of the process!
Would you like to explore effective teacher talk some more? Here are some helpful resources:
What We Say and How We Say It Matter: Teacher Talk that Improves Student Learning and Behavior: This best-selling book is packed with practical strategies and many more “Instead of this, try this” charts.
Teacher Talk that Matters: This is a visually appealing quick reference guide with practical tips. Keep it on hand as you teach for helpful reminders.
Teacher Talk: Here is a free LiveBinder packed with resources (articles, videos, etc.) for teachers all about effective language.
Teacher Talk Matters: Brief and compelling videos and practical suggestions make this short online course a great asynchronous learning option for anyone who wants to improve their teacher language.
Online/Onsite Consulting: If you would like to have me work with your faculty, reach out via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll talk about a plan that makes sense for your school!
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