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Over the course of a school year, we engage with students under a wide variety of circumstances and on an extensive array of topics. There is much we want to say to them—and there is much they need to hear from us. However, there are topics to avoid and statements to refrain from making to and in the presence of students.

Some information is confidential without exception. For example, students’ grades, health information, and other personal information are protected by policy and law. The status of other information may be less clear but still requires sensitivity and judgment. In general, we need to avoid saying things that may be perceived as ignoring boundaries, disclosing confidences, and using words to manipulate student behavior. Doing so can undermine trust in our relationships with students and compromise our professionalism. Here are nine things students should not hear from us.

First, we need to avoid sharing detailed information regarding our personal life. Students do need to feel that they know us and have a context for who we are, but there are limits to what we should discuss. As examples, the stress and status of personal relationships, details of our financial situation, mental health challenges, and personal religious beliefs are best kept out of the classroom and away from students in most circumstances. Sharing excessive personal information with students can create unnecessary confusion and stress.

Second, we also need to refrain from sharing negative remarks and personal opinions of colleagues, including the administration and district. We may have strong feelings about the adults with whom we work. However, if we have issues with other adults that need to be resolved, we need to go to those involved and work out our differences. Students should not be pulled into these conflicts; doing so can undermine students’ confidence and disrupt their relationship with us and other adults.

Third, and related, we must avoid sharing personal opinions about other students. Our words and opinions carry significant weight with students. Implying that another student is lazy or complaining that a student has offended us or does not like us is unprofessional and can undermine the respect of students.

Fourth, we need to avoid saying things that imply that our relationships with students are “on the table.” Our relationships with students matter. When we place them at risk to gain compliance, we introduce uncertainty and undermine the trust students often need in order to risk, persist, and learn with us. We should not be our students’ friend, but we still need to protect our relationship from threat and uncertainty. Children and young people are still learning about relationships, and their experience with adult relationships may be tumultuous and precarious. We need to model consistency and authenticity on which students can depend.

Fifth, we must resist sharing and listening to gossip. Gossip undermines trust and credibility, and it can unwarrantedly harm reputations. When we share or listen to gossip about others, we risk having those who observe our behavior wonder what we may be discussing about them in their absence. Engaging in gossip not only undermines professionalism but also sets a poor example for students.

Sixth, we need to resist making comparisons to other students, especially siblings. Comparisons can place undue and unrealistic pressure on students who follow a sibling “star.” Or, when comparisons are negative, they can set the stage for behavior that is even worse than demonstrated by the comparison sibling. Meanwhile, comparisons to other students in the class can also create unhealthy competition and undermine student relationships.

Seventh, we need to avoid saying things like, “Shut up!” and other emotionally driven words including cursing, yelling, and other forms of disrespectful language. Students may stop their behavior and comply with our direction, but they rarely forget. As the saying goes, “We remember how we are treated long after we forget what happened.” Careless, emotionally driven language undermines our professionalism and diminishes trust in and respect for us.

Eighth, we must avoid making sarcastic remarks about or to students. Students may not understand that what we say is intended to be sarcastic. They may not even know what sarcasm is. However, they are likely to understand that, in response, others are laughing at them. Meanwhile, other students may wonder whether and when they will become the targets of ridicule.

Ninth, we should never make negative predictions about a student’s future. Statements such as “You’ll never amount to anything,” or “There is no way you are going to pass this class,” can have a lifelong impact, even if we do not intend to inflict pain. Of course, a few students may take what is said and use it as motivation to prove us wrong. However, most students have neither the confidence nor maturity to take this path. Students are far more likely to take what we say at face value and carry the hurt and disappointment and even behave in ways consistent with our prediction. Stories abound of adults who recall with specificity the negative statements of teachers or other authoritative adults and how they have diminished their aspirations and accomplishments.

The good news is that there are so many positive, supportive, and encouraging things we can say to students that we need not rely on statements and comments that diminish confidence and undermine respect. Avoiding a few thoughtless phrases and hurtful words can make a big difference.

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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