When I was 11 years old, the scariest thing in the world to me was a Catholic school nun (a common source of fright for Catholic school students in the 1960s). It was a time when nuns and priests ruled the classroom with an iron fist. Students did what they were told, or experienced the wrath of a system that did not hear or respect their voice.
Because of that I learned very early which phrases to avoid with students, and understood even at a young age that teacher comments could swing from devastating to empowering.
'You Have No Idea What You're Doing!'
It didn't start out so badly. In the first five years, I loved my teachers and was excited to learn from them. During vacations, I missed school and was anxious to get back in class. But in sixth grade, that changed.
In sixth grade, I met Sister Alice. She barely stood five feet tall, but she was terrifying. She'd berate and humiliate her students. When she made comments like "you're stupid, you're lazy, you're dumb," they rang out over and over in the classroom, causing me and the other students great pain at a time when we were still trying to figure out who we were. We were young and naive, and for some students in that class, Sister Alice's words began to define them. Even at that young age I recognized the power words had to silence, demean, and damage students' self-esteem.
I wasn't used to teachers not liking me, and although Sister Alice disliked everyone, I tried everything I could to change her mind. I came in early to clean the classroom and dust the religious statues on her desk. But Sister Alice would hit me with the rags and shout, "You're not opening the cloth properly! You're a stupid child, and you have no idea what you're doing!" Sometimes when I'm cleaning my own home now, I recall those commands: "Open the cloth first, and then fold it over!" It was long into the school year before Sister Alice even knew my first name. I quickly dreaded going to school, and all my friends felt the same way.
Sister Alice never left her desk. She taught the same grammar lessons over and over. Art and music were canceled. Her students cowered in anxiety, and my next two years of grammar school were spent recovering from the impression she left.
'What Do You Think?'
It wasn't until my freshman year of high school, when I met Ms. Liebsch, that I began to trust teachers again and take their comments to heart. Ms. Liebsch actually listened to her students. She asked their opinions, and it was apparent that she valued what each one of us had to say. She made sure that everyone's point of view was heard. "What do you think?" She'd ask during certain lessons. Ms. Liebsch knew I enjoyed reading, too, and she'd often stop me after class with a book she thought I'd like, pressing The Bell Jar or Madame Bovary into my hand. That gesture alone showed me she truly cared about me, and it made me feel special.
Ms. Liebsch's teacher comments gave me back my voice in school. Her continuous encouragement through phrases like "You can do this" and "You have the potential and the ability," helped me develop the strength to overcome obstacles both in and out of the classroom.
When I became a teacher in 1995, I remembered the lessons that both Sister Alice and Ms Liebsch taught me. I still remember them today, twenty-two years later. I know what phrases to avoid because I know the power of the right teacher comments: They help students discover their own intelligence and give them the confidence to contribute to the rest of the class. Teachers should never bully, embarrass, or intimidate. I would certainly never say "You're stupid, you're lazy, you're dumb."
I want to be like Ms. Liebsch, and ensure that my students' opinions are valued and their voices are heard. To this day, my favorite teacher comment remains, "What do you think?"
Even after all these years, these two teachers from my past inform my practice. Today, I make sure my students hear empowering comments from me, including "I believe in you," "You can do this," and most importantly, "Don't worry, there's always a Plan B (and C and D)." It helps students realize they are never in a hopeless situation. I think about those early lessons learned, and I hope that someday my students will look back on my classroom and remember the teacher comments they heard from me. I'd like to think they'll remind them they were always welcomed, respected, and loved.