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7 Phrases Not to Say in the Teaching Profession

Jordan Catapano

We in the teaching profession are destined to experience frustrations and disappointments as teachers. It just comes with the territory at times. But no matter what our thoughts may be on certain students, curriculum, or experiences in the teaching profession, there are times when we need to reframe what we say to maintain focus on our core principles as educators.

Of course there are limitless examples of things we shouldn’t say in the teaching profession. We never want to sacrifice our relationship with students, our professionality and integrity, or our fidelity to creating genuine learning experiences for students. Here are a few examples of statements that we may be tempted to speak from time to time, but definitely need to avoid!

“Why? Because It’s On the Test!” We Say in the Teaching Profession

When students inevitably ask “Why are we learning this?”, our answer should never relate to the assessment. Yes, there will be a test; and yes, students should show their learning on the assessment. But we must not confuse the reason for learning with the demonstration of it.

If we tell students they are learning something solely because it is on the test, we’re really telling them that what they’re learning has no relevance to their lives or the real world. If I were a student, my follow-up question to this statement would be, “Why is it on the test?!”

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“Kids These Days.”

When we make a statement like this, we are suggesting that there is something wrong with the children in our classroom. We reflect back on previous years with rose-colored glasses and imply that kids these days aren’t as good as kids those days.

We need to avoid this for two reasons. First, it’s a cop-out. Our statement seems to be saying that we have reached some sort of a barrier just because of the ways children are nowadays. Children of today most likely are different from children of previous generations. We need to acknowledge and appreciate these distinctions, not dismiss them. Second, we should remind ourselves that kids of the past might have been different in some ways, but still had their own uniquenesses and shortcomings that we learned how to navigate as educators.

And while we’re at, the same applies for “Parents these days.”

“I Taught; They Didn’t Learn.”

This is a classic explanation for disappointing outcomes in student achievement. It reeks of teacher-centeredness, suggesting that the teacher’s instructional methods were flawless and the sole blame for outcomes is on the students.

Of course, teaching and learning go hand-in-hand. If the students aren’t learning, then effective teaching isn’t happening. The teacher might be doing something, but if it isn’t leading to the desired outcome, then the instructional approach needs to change. There might be some necessity for students to strengthen their skills and approaches as well, but teachers cannot write off student failure as the students’ problem.

“Next Year, They’ll Make You Do This.”

When we’ve introduced certain topics or implemented certain behavior requirements, one explanation to students is that we’re getting them used to something they need in subsequent grades. This is a shifting of responsibility that suggests teachers are not taking personal credit for current expectations, instead putting the blame and focus on the mysterious “Next year.”

If it’s important to learn or do, then teachers should tell students so. Making a statement like this implies to students that a teacher does not personally see merit in the action, but rather is trying to uphold someone else’s expectation. This gets confusing for students. Is it actually important, or is it just important to some person I’ll meet in the future? And more often than not, when they get to the next grade, students are further confused when their expectations are dashed when the threats of their previous teacher don’t quite manifest in the way imagined.

“I Know It’s Boring, But It’s In the Curriculum.”

This begs the question, “Why is it in the curriculum?” Like other statements teachers shouldn’t say, this statement gives a weak explanation for content. If the only reason a teacher can give to justify the learning of a boring topic is because “It’s in the curriculum,” that indicates to students that curriculum topics are arbitrarily assigned and the teacher has no control over them.

There are two solutions to this, of course. First, find a better explanation for why the content is in the curriculum. If it’s important enough to be included, it’s important enough to be clearly justified to students. The other solution is to change the curriculum.

“You’re So Smart!”

This one surprised me when I first heard it recommended as something we shouldn’t say. Does it surprise you? After all, this is a nice compliment!

But there is a hidden problem with this compliment: This focuses on a fixed mindset. It implies to students that they are innately born with enough cognition to master a task. It’s nothing they did that earned them the outcome; it’s who they are. This is a problem because it fails to emphasize behaviors. What happens when a “Smart” student encounters something more challenging?

While we should compliment students, we should let our praise be more specific and focus on behaviors that a student can control rather than innate characteristics that they cannot.

“This Always Worked Before.”

As we progress through our careers, we’re certain to develop some tried-and-true activities that seem to hit the mark over and over. That’s great! But when we experience one of these activities not going too well one year, it might be time to reconsider it entirely.

We might say this phrase from frustration and confusion after our trusted activity went awry. It implies that the reason why our activity didn’t work out as expected is because the students have changed, and the activity is still strong and relevant. Well, it’s entirely likely that the students have changed, and it’s time for the activity to change with them.

While we might be able to use certain phrases to generate compliance, is that really what we want? The real objective is to help students become better learners, and it’s important that the messages that undergird our statements reiterate this focus. Statements that lay blame, imply threat, or weakly justify are statements that we need to be avoiding.

What do you think about the statements above? What else would you add to this list?

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s instructional development committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.


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