5 Toxic Phrases To Stop Using With Your Students (and What to Say Instead)

“Just try your best.”

Girl with head on desk - 5 Toxic Phrases to Stop Using in the Classroom

We’ve all had moments in the classroom when we say or do something that we know is not a best teaching practice. But what about those things you say every day that seem harmless but actually may be shutting down your students emotionally or causing them unnecessary frustration in their desire to learn? Here are five phrases you may want to reconsider, and what you could say instead.

1. “Just try your best.”

What’s wrong with encouraging a student to try their best? Well, if that student is coming to you with an “I don’t get it” because they’re unsure of how to move forward on an assignment, telling them to “try their best” without further support can be frustrating. Instead, try unpacking with students what they do “get.” Start there and offer support like an outline or notes for students to work from. Encourage them to try to answer one question or write one sentence and then reassure them that you’ll check in after that to help more if they need it.

2. “Go ask a classmate.”

You provided the directions. You repeated the directions. You even had students repeat the directions. And here comes that one student ready to utter the phrase that makes you want to tear your hair out: “Wait, what are we doing?” Naturally, your reaction is: “Go ask a classmate.” We’ve all been there. But that solution likely won’t yield the results you’re hoping for. Chances are, another student may not know what to do either, or they may not be able to relay the directions correctly. A better solution is to display a visual of the directions somewhere for students to easily refer to, and say, “Go check the board, then let me know if you still have questions.”

3. “Take a break.”

There comes that moment in every teacher’s week, day, or hour, when a student’s behavior is just too much. They’re calling out, disrupting the class, and negatively impacting the learning of others. In a moment of frustration, you sternly say, “take a break.” In general, sending students out of the classroom is rarely productive. But sometimes a student could benefit from a change of scenery or an opportunity to reset themselves. Instead of “take a break,” be more intentional by sending a student to complete a task like taking a note to the office or going next door to borrow some pencils. When the student returns, praise them for their help. Remind them of the expectations and help them re-enter the activity successfully.

4. “Did you ask them to stop?”

You’re heading in from recess and a student approaches you to complain about a peer doing or saying something mean. Your first reaction may be to say, “Did you ask them to stop?” or “Did you tell them you don’t like that?” Students will often admit that they have not responded to the negative behavior, but even if you’re their first resort, they likely do not know how to navigate the situation and are coming to you for strategies. As frustrating as it might be to mediate your umpteenth spat of the day, work with the complainant to figure out how they might express their feelings. Help them find an opportunity to speak with the other student and mediate the conversation.

5. “I know you can add more.”


The problem with this statement lies in its vagueness. We all know a teacher’s frustration when students write one or two sentences and tell us they’re “done,” but simply trying to encourage a student to “add more” doesn’t provide them with strategies for how to do so. Students generally want to do well, so if they’re not giving us what we think is their best, there’s likely a reason. Instead, try: “Let’s see how we can add more to this part of your work.” Providing a specific point of elaboration makes the task seem less daunting, and your support will help a student know that they aren’t expected to know how to “do better” on their own.

What toxic phrases would you add to the list? What are the classroom phrases and responses you find helpful? Let us know in the comments.

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5 Toxic Phrases To Stop Using With Your Students (and What to Say Instead)