What Teachers Can Learn From Business Leaders

First of all, I’d like to apologize for disappearing for almost a year. I have loads of excuses, but really it all comes down to “I’ve been really, really busy.” I’ve been working on my M. Ed. in School Counseling, running a facebook group about personal finance, and, well… teaching.

So, now that Spring Break has come to an end here in odd-weathered NYC, I’m here to bring you teaching manna as we round the final stretch of the desert that is the school year (yes, I am mistress of metaphor), according to the good people at INC:

A list of words to AVOID when speaking to students (though the article refers to not using them with employees):

  • Need
  • Must
  • Can’t
  • Easy
  • Just
  • Only
  • Fast

As a high school teacher, I can only explain why these won’t work with teenagers. “Need,” “must,” and “can’t” will engage a teenager’s internal rebellion system, and may make them decide to prove you wrong. Few things are more infuriating for to be told that something you think is unnecessary is something you NEED or MUST do, or that something you want to do is something you CAN’T.

A promotional picture for the movie "Rebel Without a Cause" featuring James Dean.

A teenager will rebel whenever you give her a reason to. Give her fewer reasons to rebel, so she can rebel in someone else’s class!

Come to think of it, this is also true of the words “easy” and “just.” Whenever a teacher tells a students that they “just” need to do one little thing, particularly if the students struggle with work completion, I can almost see students digging in their heels. “That’s too much work,” they say. “If it’s easy, why can’t I do it later?” And what could be more patronizing than telling someone that a hard thing is “easy”?

Even as a grown-up, I hate it. But I can always walk out if I don’t like the way someone’s talking to me. I can always leave. Kids can’t.

Luckily the INC folks also gave us some words that folks get to rally with you (and for themselves):

Thank you/Thanks. Yes (both explicitly and implicitly. More on this later). Could (instead of should). Choose to. And (to state a contrary opinion). “Your name.”

So here’s how these good words would work in a classroom:

“Thanks, Toby!” (after a student answers a question). <— Name and thanks

“If you could go back in time and change your answer to the question, how would you change your answer?” <-Could

[When a student suggests that she do a poster for an assignment instead of an essay] “What a great idea! What could you include in your poster to show me you understand the assignment?”<–an implied Yes and Could and an implied Choose to

“You are such a great classroom participant, Trina, and the only thing that would strengthen your work would be encouraging your classmates to show each other respect when other besides you are speaking.” <— implied Yes, Name, And, implied Could

Of course, not all approaches work for all students, all the time. Clearly, using all of these approaches may work for some teachers, but not for all. If you prefer authoritarian rule of your classroom–and many folks do; there’s no shame in that–try to incorporate a little bit of kindness, as well. Authoritarian doesn’t work for all students, just as loosey-goosey doesn’t work for everyone. Try to be who your students need you to be, not just who you’ve always been.