A Teacher's Words Can Help or Harm

Educators can impact students' lives with a few innocuous words

A student writes on a blackboard

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Teachers can have a huge influence on their students. This goes much deeper than the lessons they teach. You only have to reflect on your own time in school to realize how positive or negative experiences can stick with you for the rest of your life. Educators need to remember that they hold great power over students.

Words Can Uplift

By encouraging a struggling student and explaining how she can be successful, a teacher can use words and tone to change that student’s career. A perfect example of this happened to my niece. She had moved recently and began attending a new school in ninth grade. She struggled through most of her first semester, earning Ds and Fs.

However, she had one teacher who saw that she was smart and just needed some extra help. Amazingly, this teacher spoke to her only once. He explained that the difference between earning an F or a C would require just a bit of extra effort on her part. He promised that if she spent just 15 minutes a day on homework, she would see a huge improvement. Most importantly, he told her that he knew she could do it.

The effect was like flicking a switch. She became a straight-A student and to this day loves learning and reading.

Words Can Harm

By contrast, teachers can make subtle comments intended to be positive—but are actually hurtful. For example, one of my best friends in school took AP classes. She always earned Bs and never stood out in class. However, when she took her AP English test, she scored a 5, the highest possible mark. She also earned 4s on two other AP exams.

When she returned to school after the summer break, one of her teachers saw her in the hall and told her that she was shocked that my friend had earned such a high score. The teacher even told my friend that she had underestimated her. While at first my friend was delighted with the praise, she said that after some reflection, she was annoyed that her teacher didn’t see how hard she had worked or that she excelled in AP English.

Years later, my friend—now an adult—says she still feels hurt when she thinks about the incident. This teacher likely only meant to praise my friend, but this faint praise led to hurt feelings decades after this brief hallway discussion.

The Donkey

Something as simple as role-playing can bruise a student's ego, sometimes for life. For example, one of my students spoke of a former teacher she really liked and admired. Yet, she recalled a lesson he presented that really upset her.

The class was discussing the barter system. The teacher gave each student a role: One student was a farmer and the other was the farmer’s wheat. The farmer then traded his wheat to another farmer in exchange for a donkey.

My student's role was to be the farmer’s donkey. She knew that the teacher simply picked kids at random and assigned them roles. Yet, she said that for years after the lesson, she always felt that the teacher had picked her as a donkey because she was overweight and ugly.

The example illustrates that a teacher's words can really stick with students for their entire lives. I know that I have tried to be more careful with what I tell students each day. I’m not perfect, but I hope that I am more thoughtful and less damaging to my students in the long run.

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Your Citation
Kelly, Melissa. "A Teacher's Words Can Help or Harm." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/impact-of-words-and-actions-8321. Kelly, Melissa. (2020, August 27). A Teacher's Words Can Help or Harm. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/impact-of-words-and-actions-8321 Kelly, Melissa. "A Teacher's Words Can Help or Harm." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/impact-of-words-and-actions-8321 (accessed June 2, 2023).