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Five Good and Not So Good Things to Say to Your Students

By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller

The fact is, 80 percent of all talk done in classrooms is done by teachers. Sometimes, that talk is lecture. Other times, it involves giving directions, reprimanding, reminding, questioning, suggesting, motivating, or explaining. Regardless of its form, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, teacher talk makes up 80 percent of classroom talk.

Is some of that talk better than others? Does some talk help, motivate, and encourage? Does other teacher language shame and belittle? Are teachers always aware of the effect of their words? You might be surprised. Let's take a closer look at five good and not so good things to say to your students.


1."What did I just tell you?"
"Where were you when I explained this?"
"Didn't I just explain that?"
"Haven't you started yet?"
"Do you know where your seat is?"

Refrain from asking questions to which you already know the answer. Those questions are thinly veiled accusations that require no answer. If students did reply to one of the questions, they'd be accused of disrespect:
"Do you know where your seat is?"
"Yes, it's in the fourth row, third one back."
"OK, that's a detention for you, Jason."

If you really want to know if Janelle has her assignment done, if Kristen has begun her work, or where Matthew was when you gave the assignment, ask. But if your intention is to remind students to get in their seats, begin their work, or pay more careful attention during explanations, tell them directly without asking a question. If you already know the answer, then deliver your real message in clear, direct, respectful language. "Kristen, I need you to begin now." "Matthew, you were unfocused when I made the assignment. If you are ready to focus now I will go over the directions one more time."

2. "I like the way Linda is sitting."
Teachers have been taught to ignore the behaviors they do not want and give attention to those they desire. You know the philosophy, "Catch 'em being good." Teachers have been trained to say:
"I like the way Armond is standing."
"Look how Carlos walks down the hall. I am enjoying his behavior."
"I appreciate the how Sabrina is working."

Although that style of Teacher Talk works if you want to manipulate behavior, it does not model honest, open communication. "I like the way Linda is sitting" is not even intended for Linda. It is intended for everyone else. In this case, Linda is being used to manipulate other students into behaving in a similar way. When you do that, you model indirect communication and manipulation. Neither is justified by the result of having students sitting appropriately.

3."Tell him you're sorry."
When you force a student to say she's sorry when she's not, you teach her to hold back her anger, choke off her frustration, numb out her real feelings, pretend they do not exist, and lie to the other child. In those cases, we do students a disservice by teaching them to deny their feelings.

Telling someone you are sorry can be an easy way out resulting in cheap forgiveness. It is a simple penance that excuses the student from considering a change in behavior. She does not have to create a plan for more appropriate action or think about how to behave differently in the future. She does not have to think at all. She only has to say, "I'm sorry."

As an alternative, have students think about the situation and articulate what they learned and what they intend to do differently next time. Being sorry has more to do with behaving differently next time than it does with saying the words, "I'm sorry."

4."That's not a good excuse."
By giving students feedback on their excuses, we believe we are teaching them to behave more responsibly. Actually, that style of Teacher Talk has the opposite effect.

When we determine the acceptability of students' excuses we set up ourselves as the excuse judges. We communicate to students that our role is one of excuse examiner whose job it is to pass judgment on excuses. That leaves the role of excuse givers to students and encourages them to generate more excuses for us to rate.

When we say, "That's not a good excuse," we communicate, "If you had a good excuse, I might accept it." Every time that happens, we undermine the student's responsibility and invite more excuses.

5."Always do your best."
"Always do your best," at first glance, seems to fit our goals of creating high expectations and of encouraging students to strive for excellence. However, always doing one's best is impossible. No one can always do his best, and to ask for that impossibility communicates our incongruence with reality.

In addition, striving to always do one's best is often undesirable. Do we really want students working to do their best on the first draft of a three-draft piece of writing? The goal of a first draft is to generate ideas and let the writing flow freely. Students who worry about doing their best in such circumstances, get caught up in minor details and block the flow of ideas that could later be refined and turned into their best.

Is it helpful to ask a student who has never attempted cursive writing to do her best on a practice sheet, or is it more important that she feels comfortable enough to experiment with the new skill? Perhaps doing one's best is better saved for more appropriate times.

It is important to eliminate from your Teacher Talk vocabulary such platitudes as "Always do your best." Save "Do you best" for those times when you really mean it; for those instances when it is crucial that students summon their energy and motivation to create their own unique brand of excellence.


1."Check yourself."
"I'm having trouble hearing. Please check yourself to see if you are using your inside voice."
"We're getting ready to go to the assembly. Please check yourself to see if you are lined up next to someone whom you'll be able to sit with quietly once you get to the auditorium."
"I'll be taking your papers home tonight. I'll be looking for facts that support your statements. We have a few minutes left. Please check yourself to see if you have enough facts to back up your statements."
"Your science notebook will be graded for those seven items. Check yourself to see if your notebook contains them."

The words spoken here are, "Check yourself." Yet the real message, the silent message is, "I see you as capable, responsible, and as someone who can check on yourself. Checking is your job. I believe you can handle it." Using "Check yourself" with students is Teacher Talk that encourages self-responsibility and creates autonomous learners.

2."Please make a BE choice."
Students can't always control what they "do" in your classroom. You decide if they are to work cooperatively or independently. You decide whether they are to do a one or two-page report. You decide if they work on fractions or long division. You decide when time is up.

Although you often decide what they will do, students always decide how they will "be" when they do what they do. A "be' choice is always under their control. They choose how they will "be" during the assembly, while working on math, or doing a science project with a partner.

"Please make a 'be' choice," is Teacher Talk that helps students stay conscious of the fact that they are choosing how to "be." A third grade teacher announced, "We're getting ready to see an art demonstration from Jenny's father, Mr. Hanson. Please make a "be' choice for how you want to be during his talk. Pick from the list on the board. We'll talk about the results of your "be" choice" after he leaves. The list included, friendly, interested, helpful, respectful, polite, and alert.

Being gives birth to doing. If a student learns to be friendly, friendly acts follow. If a child chooses to be helpful, helpful acts flow from that decision. Add, "Please make a 'be' choice," to your Teacher Talk repertoire and help your students access a piece of their personal power.

3."Next time..."
"Next time please let me finish my sentence before you start talking."
"Next time please respect the inch guidelines and show all your work."
"Next time I'd like you to use words to communicate your feelings."

Next time is a valuable piece of Teacher Talk that will help you plant positive pictures in students' heads of what you want to happen in the future. It helps them build a mental model of the expected behavior.

Saying, "Next time" does not guarantee that the student will choose the desired behavior at the next opportunity. But it increases your odds that the behavior will occur. And it helps you add positive phrasing to your Teacher Talk.

Using, "next time' is a positive alternative to "don't." "Don't walk through Lionel's blocks," is critical and draws attention to the negative. "Next time, walk around Lionel's blocks," is instructive and communicates the desired behavior.

If you hear yourself telling students, "Don't run," next time alter your Teacher Talk. Tell the student, "Next time, walk."

4."You decide."
Many times throughout the day students ask questions that place the teacher in a permission-giving role:
"May I sharpen my pencil now?"
"Will this book qualify for extra credit?"
"Is it OK if I ask Beth to help me?"

To step out of the permission-giving role and empower your students, consider the phrase, "You decide." That phrase, along with similar language, "You choose," "It's up to you," and "You can pick," can effectively place decision-making responsibilities on the shoulders of your students.

One caution: Only use that phrase if your answer to their question was going to be, "Yes." If it's not OK to ask Beth for help, say, "No." If it is OK with you for the student to ask Beth for help, do not give permission. Reply instead, "You decide."

5."Check it out inside."
We teach students where to turn for answers. We show them how to find answers in the dictionary, on the Internet, in their text books, in an encyclopedia. We help them learn the skills of using a reference librarian effectively. We teach them to look to a variety of sources for answers. But rarely do we teach them to look within.

"Check it out inside," is a Teacher Talk phrase that helps us help students look within themselves for answers. Each of us has a wise part within, an intuitive part that knows what is best for us. Learning how to contact, listen to, and trust that inner authority are important skills. They are invaluable when life presents us with problems whose answers aren't in the back of the book.

"Not sure what part to audition for the play? Check it out inside."
"Unclear who to interview for your paper? Check in."
"Wondering who to ask to your party? Give it the tummy test."

"Check it out inside," is a piece of Teacher Talk that teachers a student trust his own judgment. It helps him develop as an independent, autonomous individual capable of making personal decisions. Having faith in his own inner authority serves a student well by enabling him to resist the temptation to please others at his own expense or to compromise himself by conforming to peer pressure.

About the Authors

Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the authors of The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose. Two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children, the two also publish a free monthly e-zine for parents. To sign up for the newsletter or to obtain more information about how they can help you or your group meet your parenting needs, visit their Web sites today: or