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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Teacher Tuesday: the phrase I want to stop using in my classroom

Last week one of my daughters came home from preschool repeating a phrase she had learned from her teacher. It is one that I use quite often in my own teaching, but when I heard it come out of my 3-year-old's mouth (with the R's sounding like W's and the cute, high-pitched tone), it gave me pause.


The phrase? "Worry about yourself".

I think it struck me most because just a few days before I heard my daughter say it, I had heard her teacher tell me at parent conferences that my daughter was very good at helping the other students, and even the teachers, when she sensed that they needed something or were not feeling well. Isn't it kindof backwards to tell children NOT to worry about anyone else, but rather to only worry about themselves? And yet we say it all the time.

We have very good reason for saying it. I usually use it when students are, in a rather haughty or accusatory tone, telling other students what to do (and thus creating more noise, chaos, and conflict). Because the original offenders are then getting offended by the other students telling them what to do, I tell all of the students to "stop worrying about what other people are doing and worry about yourself". We say it because we want them to mind their own business and let us, the teachers, handle any inappropriate behaviors (since we clearly know how to handle it more appropriately without hurting students' feelings and making a small problem into a bigger problem).

But what about teaching children how to help each other? How to correct and remind without offending? What about teaching children to be able to accept help when it is offered graciously instead of automatically getting defensive?

I think telling students to mind their own business- to worry about themselves- is the easy way out. That's why we say it so often. But when I really think about it, that's not what I really want my students to do. I want them to be able to help and accept help from each other. I want them to worry about each other in a healthy and empathic way.

I don't want my 3-year-old daughter to stop running across the room to get the tissue box when she sees another student has a booger hanging out of their nose. I don't want her to stop asking the teacher, in a concerned little voice, if she is tired. In fact, I want to teach all of my students to do exactly what she is doing right now- show concern and care for the other people in her classroom community.

Instead of telling everyone to worry about themselves, I want to start talking to my classes about how to help each other, when to ignore small things that come up, when to let an adult or someone else handle something, and how to accept help and reminders when they are offered. It will certainly take more time than telling everyone to mind their own business, but I think it will also help foster important character traits and develop a healthy and safe classroom community as well.

Do you use this phrase in your classroom? Have you ever thought about it? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

11 comments :

  1. What a thoughtful post. I think I use this too much in my teaching, too. I need to think about rephrasing it! Thanks for the inspiration.

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    1. Thanks so much for commenting. I caught myself 3 times since publishing this post getting ready to say it, and I had to stumble around to find the most efficient way to address the problem in a more restorative way without taking too much precious class time! It's definitely a work in progress.

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  2. I have thought about this many times, and for the very same reasons as you. I remember hearing this from others teachers, and I cringed inwardly every time I heard myself say it. It's one of those phrases that comes out when you're tired and fed up. I agree whole-heartedly though, that it's the easy way out and that it's not the best way to help students to learn compassion.

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    1. It's so hard because sometimes the best way to "solve" these petty little arguments is just to get kids to move on- I don't want to make mountains out of mole hills, especially with the short time I have to see the kids- so it's tricky to know when it is important to take the time to fully resolve the situation and when to just force everyone to move on. Definitely something I will continue to refine!

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  3. You are exactly right! We need our kids (personal & students) to learn how to give and accept help. We have to teach them HOW to be kind. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

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    1. It can definitely get exhausting. Some days it feels like I have spent my entire day helping 300 different children learn how to be better human beings (because that's basically what I did), and I just want to scream, "can't everyone just figure it out for, like, 10 minutes on their own so I can relax?!?". LOL. But it really is important work we do, both as teachers and parents.

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  5. It is such a mixed message when we say "Just worry about yourself." Then we (myself included) don't understand why kids ONLY worry about themselves! Music can't happen if even one person is not with the group, (silly voices, not paying attention, fooling around, touching other kids- all that. ) I've changed my language to "Check yourself and make sure you're helping the group." Or when kids complain, I say, I know you're trying to help. What might be more helpful? It is more work for me to encourage this but it does feel like we're gaining more momentum toward a more nurturing classroom, better musicianship and community. Thank you for this article.

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    1. Yes! It definitely takes more time from our precious class time to help kids practice helping each other- just like it takes a lot more time to let the little guys tie their own shoes instead of doing it for them- but it's so important for them to get that chance to practice.

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  6. This has literally been an ongoing issue with my classes at one of my schools since we have been back from break! I find myself saying some version of this at every grade level (1-5)!

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    1. I think coming back from any break, this can be a particular challenge for sure- I have a few classes that are all "up in each other's business" this month too! One alternative way to address this that I've used a couple of times this month is to say something to the whole class like, "I'm noticing that right now there are quite a few people who are allowing themselves to get distracted by small noises, comments, or actions around them, and their response is turning tiny problems into big problems. I really need everyone to do their best to focus on our activity right now, because I have something important/fun for us to do together, and not let small things distract us so much!". Sometimes turning it back to an issue of focus rather than focusing on problem-solving skills themselves is helpful for breaking the cycle and improving the tone of the class.

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