Choose your words wisely
Over the years I have spoken to thousands of students. What I have found, often to my surprise, is that it was not the meaning of what I said that mattered, but rather my choice of words.
Here are some short, easy-to-recall phrases I find myself using almost daily that I’ve found to be consistently effective in getting students settling down, working hard and back on-side when things go wrong:
“How can I help?”
When a student appears to not be doing any work, I used to remind them of the task and then inform them of the detention they would get for not doing it. The problem I found is that this was laborious to say, sometimes ineffective and would occasionally lead to arguments. When asking the snappier question “How can I help?”, I find that students will open up. They might ask a question they were too shy to ask, say honestly that they don’t understand what to do, or even that they don’t need any help and get to work.
“I need you to concentrate”
I used to say ‘I need you to focus’ which didn’t seem to work so well perhaps because ‘focus’ as a behaviour is too ambiguous. ‘Concentrate’ as a behaviour seems to be understood better. Significantly, the pronoun ‘I’ in ‘I need…’ rather than ‘you’ in ‘you need to…’ strategically focuses the students’ attention onto you for long enough to make your point. But be careful when using ‘I’. If said aggressively it can start an argument. It must be delivered in a cool and level tone.
“You’re probably right”
Students sometimes like to disagree with you, not because they believe what they’re saying, but because it’s fun to challenge authority and it can give them a sense of control. When it’s over a small matter and where there’s no benefit to winning the argument (your interpretation of a poem you’re teaching, for instance, or how they might work better if they didn’t have to wear school uniform, or that school starts too early or that they will never use Macbeth in real life…) this phrase can appease them and allow you to move on without wasting time.
Not so much a phrase as a sound, I’ve found that a gentle shooshing from the teacher can sometimes cut through the noise and get quiet in a way that words often don’t. Perhaps it triggers memories of primary school, or even their parents when they were very young. Or maybe it’s just soothing to hear?
“Don’t spoil it”
A great deputy headteacher I observed as a trainee said this all the time, and it always seems to settle a boisterous class. Appealing to their sense of logic, why would they make the lesson worse than it need be?
“I’d like to apologise”
The most wonderful interactions I’ve had with students have started with this. It’s sometimes hard to keep your cool and I admit I’ve had many instances of getting cross and starting arguments with students. Once I’ve reflected on it and found myself at fault, I like to find them before the next lesson and engage them with this opener. I see them physically relax and offer a genuine smile in return. They are often forthcoming with an apology of their own and my relationship with them goes on to be very strong afterwards.