Be Careful What You Tell Your Students…Because They’ll Believe You

If you tell them they’re the worst class you’ve ever had, they definitely will be.

What We Say Informs Student Identity

Not all classes are created equal.

A few years ago, I had the class from hell. You know how I knew they were the class from hell? They told me so. I taught them as sixth graders, and they’d brought a reputation from fifth grade as the most difficult class in the school. By the time they hit eighth grade, they started the year off by bragging to their new teachers about how many of their former teachers had left the profession because of them.

It happens a lot. A group of kids is, for whatever reason, more difficult than their predecessors. Maybe it’s the mix of personalities in a particular class. Maybe a certain teacher’s classroom management style doesn’t work for these kids. This year’s sixth grade at my school has been through a ton of educational upheaval—they’ve lost four or five teachers in the middle of the year due to various circumstances, so they’ve had no consistency when it comes to academic or behavioral expectations. I anticipate a challenge when they come to me for seventh grade next year.

Kids get a reputation…and they know  it.

Whatever the reason, a group of kids gets a reputation – possibly deserved – for being difficult. That’s inevitable. The problem comes when teachers talk about this in front of the kids, or even directly to the kids. Because students, especially challenging ones, all want to be a part of something. If being known as “the bad class” becomes a part of their identity, they’re going to embrace with a totally counterproductive sense of bad-assery that is exactly what teachers hope to scare out of them by calling them “the bad class.”

On the other hand, it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into when you get a new group of kids. Last year, four kids in my seventh grade ESOL class were illiterate.  Their reading was below a second grade level. That’s the kind of thing that’s good to know before you start. This year, one of the most popular and influential kids in my grade level tends to use his power for evil, and he’s got a substantial number of boys who will follow his lead. That’s useful information as well.

But we have to remember that the kids are listening.


It’s not that teachers shouldn’t talk about their classes, but we do need to be careful about how we talk about them. Characterizing an entire homeroom or an entire grade as “bad” is absolutely inaccurate. Really? Every kid in the entire grade is a behavior problem? Labeling a class based on its troublemakers gives all the power over the group’s very identity to the kids who make the worst decisions.

So by all means, give pertinent information to the teachers you’re passing your kids along to. If there’s a bullying problem, admit that there’s a bullying problem. But don’t tell the kids, “You guys are all bullies, and the whole school knows it.” Kids’ identities are pretty fluid, and they’ll believe what you tell them about themselves.

Kids will embrace the student identity we give them, positive or negative.

However, students’ willingness to accept what we tell them about themselves and their classmates is absolutely something we can turn to their advantage. The class from hell a few years ago? They were fantastic at debates and class discussions. My grade level team made an effort to brag about that and emphasize it as much as we could and, while we certainly couldn’t solve all their problems, it did give their future teachers ideas about how to engage them, and it helped these students see their competitive nature in a positive light. My illiterate seventh graders were all, incidentally, incredibly artistic and creative. Publicizing that both to them and to their other teachers helped them get more involved in the school and take on responsibilities and projects that they would otherwise have felt “too stupid” to explore.

It’s like the line from Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say, children will listen.” Our kids will believe what they hear us tell other teachers, whether we say that they behave like animals or that they have exceptionally good taste in music. Both those things might be true…it’s all about which one we want them to claim as part of their identity. Let’s use our power for good. Let’s see the best in our kids and allow them to do the same.

Have you witnessed how your words can help inform student identity? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.