My students were chatting casually one day when someone made a remark that surprised me, to which I responded with the current vernacular, “Bruh!” (In case you’re unaware of this trend, “bruh” is shortened slang for “brother” or “bro!”)
The room went silent as they all stared at me incredulously. Finally, one spokesperson gently but firmly (albeit comically) proclaimed, “Teachers. Do not. Say. ‘Bruh.’”
“Why not?” I asked, amused.
The entire class vehemently agreed that it’s simply not done. It’s a social faux pas for a teacher to say “bruh.”
After giggling about this with my students, I considered my teen years in the 80’s, when “gag me with a spoon” was how we expressed displeasure. To have a teacher utter those words would have seemed ridiculous to me then too.
Words matter not just socially, but also (and even more importantly) emotionally.
I don’t believe the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Some words implant negative thought patterns that resurface long after physical wounds are healed.
So what are some words that could be harmful to our students?
“You’re not good at (xyz).”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“You’re a slow learner.”
“This isn’t good enough.”
“No, you’re wrong.”
“What’s your problem?”
“How can you still not get this?”
“You’ll never make it to the next grade/graduation/college.”
When students hear negative statements like these, they attach a meaning to what they’re hearing and often internalize that meaning.
Parent/Teacher What the Student May Internalize
“You’re not good at (xyz).” I’m bad at (xyz), so why bother trying?
“Don’t be stupid.” I’m stupid.
“You’re a slow learner.” I can’t learn fast enough; I’m “less than.”
“This isn’t good enough.” I’m not good enough.
“No, you’re wrong.” I can’t trust myself.
“What’s your problem?” I have a problem/I am a problem.
“How can you still not get this?” I’m stupid and disappointing.
“You’ll never make it to the next grade!” I’m stuck and I’m a failure.
Students that internalize statements like these are left with two options: 1.) accept them as true (and struggle with poor self-esteem), or 2.) try to disprove them. Although option 2 may seem better at first, it forces a student to perform in order to prove their worth to themselves and others. Pressure to perform breeds anxiety and stress in all areas of life. Rather, we want to train children to see their schoolwork (and everything else they do) as an expression of who they are, not as a test for approval or worth.
I propose that we intentionally interact with our students in a way that doesn’t damage their sense of self-worth. A wrong answer or a confusing science assignment might be frustrating in the moment, but adopting negative self-talk can become a life-long struggle.
Here are a few examples of how to address your student more positively:
“Let’s look at this again another way.”
“You’re smart. Be patient with yourself.”
“I know you’re capable. Maybe you just need a break from this for a minute.”
“Your answer is close. Give it another try and you’ll probably get it.”
“I know this is hard and I also know you’re able to rise to the challenge.”
“What if you put forth your best effort here? The sky’s the limit!”
“How about if you tried it this way?”
“You’re working on it and it will come. Keep up the good work!”
“It’s okay if it takes longer to do this. That’s what we’re here for.”
Students in my school are not allowed to say, “I’m bad at (xyz).” Instead, they get to use the phrase “I’m working on (xyz).” For example, instead of saying “I’m bad at long division,” a student would say, “I’m working on long division.” And in my case, I no longer say, “I’m bad at art.” Instead I say, “I’m working on my art skills.” Rather than repeatedly confirming “badness” at something, my students (and I) use words that can promote growth and grace in that area.
Being wise with our words in our day-to-day schooling benefits our students because educating them is not just about the 3R’s (and an occassional laugh about verbal social trends).
We're also teaching them how to think about themselves.
So bruh, let’s be wordly-wise.