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7 Things to Never Tell a Teacher

classroom teacher

Whether you’ve been in the classroom for one year or 30, people say things to teachers that they definitely should not. A lot of tone-deaf statements that are directed toward teachers are born out of awkward social moments, or perhaps some individuals are just condescending. Either way, we all know people who blurt out the wrong thing, the most common of which are listed below. Instead of just getting angry or feeling helpless in these situations, it makes more sense to think about how to respond so that we’re prepared when these unpleasant little nuggets pop up unpredictably in conversations.  

“Teaching is a calling.”

When people express the above sentiment, their intentions are probably good. What they wish to express, however, is not actually what this phrase denotes. When something is a calling, it means a person does it for its own sake, and not for any other benefit. The problem with identifying teaching as a calling is that it is very hard work, and even the most dedicated teachers need to make money in order to continue in the field. Suggesting that any profession can be sustained by passion alone marginalizes its importance. If we want to express appreciation for teaching, there are better ways to characterize it and recognize the skill behind work that might seem effortless, but that really takes continuing effort and dedication to do effectively.

“Some kids are just bad seeds.”

For people who work under the assumption that all kids have the capacity to learn and grow, denigrating some of them as inherently flawed and therefore hopeless flies in the face of what teachers work so hard to achieve. If we leaned into the conviction that some kids are just terrible people, we wouldn’t serve all students’ needs to the best of our ability. Instead, our deficit mindset thinking would guide us to try harder with some kids, and simply dismiss the rest. It may be idealistic to assume that every student in our classes will experience a significant increase in achievement throughout the school year, but we have the responsibility to do what we can within our locus of control to keep trying.

“It must be great to have a short workday and summers off.”

The collective groan everyone just heard is probably coming from within our souls, and for good reason. The whole “short-day-short-year” concept is an utter myth for so many reasons. Teachers may appear to have an abbreviated workday because it ends earlier than 5 PM in most cases, but that is only reflective of the time that students are in the building being actively instructed. Most teachers arrive at school long before students do, and they usually stay many hours after pickup time to grade and plan for the next day. In addition, teachers often have to take their work home, as the backlog piles up to unmanageable levels otherwise. As far as summer is concerned, teachers rarely take all that time to themselves. Instead, they take on additional jobs to make up for the shortfall of being unpaid for two months, or they complete required training to keep their jobs. It is relatively rare for any teacher to take the full summer off, even if they do fit in a week off or some longer weekends.

“Anyone can teach.”

Along the stupid lines of “those who can’t, teach” comes the equally contemptible notion that anyone can teach. Perhaps anyone can cook (though we’ll leave the Disney creators of Ratatouille to battle that one out), but teaching is not a skill that can be gleaned by simply having once been a student, or through osmosis. The general public may conceive of teaching as standing at the front of the room filling minds with information, but qualified teachers know that is hardly the way to ensure that students learn. Facilitating growth and achievement is an endeavor that requires knowledge, skill and expertise. Even highly qualified individuals find teaching to be endlessly challenging, so the idea that any layperson can figure it out without proper qualifications is not only ridiculous–it is also downright insulting.

“You’re not underpaid.”

This jewel of a thought perfectly expresses the undervaluation of teaching as a profession. Interestingly, other professionals with comparable education and experience don’t typically need to defend their right to earn a salary commensurate with their skill level. In fact, the two fields that face this issue most pervasively are teaching and nursing. It is no coincidence that women tend to dominate these professions, and therefore the glass ceiling is very much in evidence when people place a value on what good teachers are worth. A common argument is that teachers are paid well considering they have “two months off,” but as we all know (see the above section about supposed summer vacation time), those months are unpaid.

“I hated my [fill in the blank] teacher.”

Sometimes it happened to me at a party, or even in a smaller group. I would meet somebody new, we’d get to talking about our lives, and the question of our jobs inevitably came up. When I shared that I was a high school English teacher, it was disturbingly often that I would get the response, “Oh, I hated my English teacher in high school.” That is not a comment that is easy to respond to, and it can also come across as quite rude. At times I would get flip (“Right, sometimes I hate myself, too”) or be more direct (“What a shame”), but most of the time the comment would simply silence me for the remainder of the conversation. Most people have probably had teachers that they’ve hated, but saying that to a person who is doing their best to help kids doesn’t exactly express respect, much less any kind of appreciation.

“Why would you ever do this for a living?”

In full honesty, teachers might ask themselves this question at times. Teaching is certainly not the most lucrative of professions, nor does it contain any material perks (and no, the occasional PTA breakfast doesn’t count). However, openly asking this question of someone without really understanding their motivations for being in education is a social faux pas. Clearly, teachers have gone into their chosen profession intentionally and have stayed for reasons that are important to them. Interrogating them about why they would take an admittedly more difficult career path might be seen as disrespectful, not to mention obtuse.

The old expression about having nothing nice to say still holds true today. When in doubt, don’t say anything at all. Teachers welcome open conversations about how they engage students and enjoy opportunities to talk about what they do with people who are truly interested rather than just curious. Otherwise, questioning why they would do something that seems unappealing is more likely to come across as insulting, and that is no way to treat people who (often at great personal sacrifice) continue to bring their A game for kids every day.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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