As a teacher, you want the best for your students. However, even the best teachers can make simple mistakes that can destroy student motivation. It’s critically important to always be self-aware of your actions and words as a teacher and avoiding the following mistakes can make a huge difference to both student respect and your future career options.
1. “You are so talented, this is easy for you.”
When we praise students for the ease with which they complete tasks, we have created a situation where they will be less likely to try new tasks. Why? If we praise them for accomplishing tasks without much effort, what we are saying is that they should not have to struggle in order to be successful. The truth is that real learning should be a challenge. Students need to push beyond what is effortless in order to continue moving forward. When facing a challenge in the future, kids who found things easy may give up, get frustrated, or worse, cheat. Also, kids who see that the praise goes to students who find the work easy will be less likely to admit they are struggling. Instead, we need to praise effort. Try saying; “You are working so hard, I am impressed with your effort.”
2. “Why can’t you act like so-and-so?”
When we compare kids to each other, we may end up with a student who is resentful or hurt. Kids do pay attention to who they think the teacher “likes” best. They may not tell you, but they internalize it, and they will react and put in effort based on those ideas. Instead, you can say something like “I noticed that you are tipping your chair, and fidgeting a lot while you work. I know that usually kids who are really focused on their work usually don’t move around quite so much. What can we do to get you on track?”
3. “You are so lazy!”
When kids think that the adults in their lives are judging them harshly, they tend to either rebel or close themselves off. A better idea is to instead separate the behavior from the person. Talk to your student about his or her choices, while continuing to affirm who he or she is as a person. You could say “I see that you don’t finish assignments, and you don’t participate much. I think you are bright and capable, so help me understand why your choices and who you are don’t seem to match up.” You must have a good understanding of behavior choices as a teacher.
4. “Another bad grade!”
Calling a student out on a mistake may seem funny if you have a student who you think can handle it, but teasing can backfire. If you think that Charlie the cool kid will laugh when you roll your eyes and say “D for diploma Charlie!” when you hand him back his test, Charlie may laugh, the class may be entertained, but ultimately, you may have just destroyed your relationship with that student, and thus destroyed his motivation. Kids won’t always tell you if your jokes hurt; in fact, they most often won’t. But they work harder for teachers who treat them with respect, and advertising poor grades is embarrassing.
5. “Movie day! I need a break!”
You may know that you are working a million hours a week, and you need to show a movie in order to get caught up on some papers, and the movie you are showing has important educational content. But if you admit that the timing of the movie is because you need to work on papers, the kids only hear that you are giving them time to goof off, and you aren’t able to keep up with the job. They feel safe when they feel like you are on top of everything. Even if you are feeling buried, keep it to yourself so that they can feel secure with you as their leader.
6. “Shut up!”
When you lose your temper and yell, you have lost your students. You may get the desired effect of getting them quiet, but you have humiliated and belittled them. Kids need to feel safe and respected. You don’t have to accept rotten behavior, but you have to control your temper, and you have to choose language that is respectful, rather than humiliating or belittling kids. Learning how to talk to students is critical.
7. “Because I am the adult, and I am in charge.”
That is a sure way to get kids to shut down and stop listening. They may act in the way that you want, but they are no longer viewing you as a person who respects them. You can change this one by explaining that “I am telling you this because I know it is good for you. Adults are here to help you because you are still growing, and you need someone to guide you, so sometimes you just have to accept that someone who knows a little better has the right answer.”
8. “You don’t get to question me.”
You may be right, they may be stinkers, but be careful not to come off as a dictator. Kids who think you rule with an iron fist will look for ways to get some power back, and you won’t like how they do it. Nobody likes a “kick me” sign. Give them respect, and answer questions when you can. If you can’t, go back to the nice way of explaining how adults help, from number seven!
9. “You would do better if only…”
Yes, you do know what they need to do, but kids also need a sense of having some control over what they do. Give them ideas that they can agree to. Try changing the wording just a bit, and ask them, “do you think it would help you to do better if you tried…”
10. “I am done with this.”
Never announce to the kids that you are giving up. You are probably just frustrated and you only mean that you give up in that moment. Kids hear that you are giving up on them altogether, and that you are no longer willing to teach them. Just tell them that you are frustrated, or that whatever is going wrong is making you disappointed, or simply keep the thought to yourself.