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Favorite Teaching Profession Expressions of Mine

Jordan Catapano

In the teaching profession, we tend to find certain favorite phrases or quotable quotes that encapsulate a certain thought they want to impress upon their students. Well, that’s at least true for me. Over the years I’ve caught myself returning to a few favorite statements that – I hope – turned an important thought into a pithy nugget of wisdom students could take with them.

Here are a few of favorite “Teacher phrases” of mine. I hope to hear some of yours as well.

1. “The smartest people have all the questions, not all the answers.”

I found that my students often thought that they needed to know all the answers, or else they were “Dumb.” Students were often cowed into silence simply because of the misconception that they needed to know more than they did. Sure, smart people have plenty of answers, but that’s not what makes them smart. “Smart people,” I tell students, “have questions because they don’t know something. They’re smart because they’re curious and willing to ask.”

This makes the feeling of “Smartness” so much more much accessible and so much more human. I found that this statement helped liberate students from feeling like they weren’t smart or weren’t allowed to ask questions. Instead of questions being a clear indicator of one’s ignorance, questions in my classroom were praised as signs of authentic curiosity and intelligence.

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2. “I’m not here to teach you WHAT to think. I’m here to teach you HOW to think.”

I often found my students operating under the assumption that they were expected to memorize strictly what I taught them and use that information to ace the next exam. What a narrow way of looking at education! I remind students frequently that my job wasn’t just to hand them a list of information to memorize, but rather to introduce them to skills, processes, perspectives, techniques, and the wide world of ideas. This was my way of inviting students to a challenge. I wouldn’t just give them the answers, but rather nudge them into thinking for themselves utilizing the skills and content we have studied.

3. “I don’t just want you to be a strong student. I want you to be a strong person.”

I reminded students with this statement that I wasn’t just interested in their grades. I was interested in whom they were becoming as people. Grades usually identified a student’s academic proficiency, but so much more went into how they earned their grades and how they operated as an individual within their broader school community. Giving up in the face of a challenge was not OK. Sacrificing one’s integrity was not OK. Acting selfish or condescending was not OK. Doing the minimum to pass was not OK. It never hurts being a strong student, but it’s far more important to consider who our students will be once they graduate as well.

4. “Silence is the sound of thinking.”

We rarely value silence. It’s awkward and feels so unproductive. We idealize the “Loud” classroom where students are collaborating and ideas are bouncing around the room. Sure, thinking out loud and having active discussions are great. But silence is its own virtue. If we value thinking, then we also need to give students the space and permission to think.

That’s why I remind students that silence isn’t awkward, or a sign of zoning out. Silence grants our minds with room to breathe and process. So when my class was having a discussion and the room went quiet for a few awkward moments, I used this phrase to encourage students to live in the silence without straining for someone to break it. When I wanted students to read, or write, or brainstorm, or do any sort of sustained thinking, I made sure the environment was quiet so their minds could wander freely to discover new thoughts without interruption. I want my students to know that silence is OK.

5. “Of course you’re not good at this. That’s why you’re in school.”

I would routinely have students tell me something like, “Oh my gosh, I’m terrible at writing!” or “My math teacher hates me. I can’t do math!” Yes, students exaggerate, but rooted inside of their hyperboles are the hidden fears of inadequacy. Some students feel like they need to openly acknowledge where their deficits are so as to make excuses for their forthcoming failures. This mindset, however, was unacceptable with me. These phrases represent a fixed mindset, the notion that they are innately bad at whatever task they’re naming.

As a simple response, I would utter something like this as my retort: “Of course you’re not a good writer … that’s why you’re in this class. If you were already an expert at it, you wouldn’t need to be in school!” This makes sense to students, but they hardly arrive at this conclusion on their own. This statement helps remind students that they’re in school to learn, to develop skills and acquire knowledge they didn’t have before. In one moment, a student is flipped from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset and ready to take better advantage of their time at school.

6. “A test is like a photograph of your brain today.”

This one’s a little weird, but I like the comparison. While much of the time we might focus on how important a given test is – like an Advanced Placement exam or the SAT – I feel like it’s important to remind students they are worth more than a test score. I make the comparison between a picture of them when they were a kid and a picture of them today. “Do you look the same?” I ask. The students shake their heads no. “That’s sort of like how your brain works, too. A test helps us take a picture, in a way, of how much skills and knowledge you have today. But the score you earn doesn’t mean that’s the score you’re destined to get for the rest of your life. Your skills and knowledge will keep growing, just like your body.”

When sharing this with students, I’ll often tell them what I got on certain tests when I was their age, and then how much more I’ve learned and how capable I am now as an adult, all because I kept learning and didn’t let a score define me. Students, I hope, will begin to put less pressure on themselves to perfect a given test and instead focus their attention on their own lifelong development.

These are some of my favorite phrases I’ve used off and on with students over the years. Of course, they don’t work out as magically as I sometimes imagine. Students roll their eyes, argue back, or just don’t understand what I’ve getting at. That’s OK, though. As a teacher, I do my best each day to inculcate students with new and simple ways of understanding education, life, and themselves.

I know we all have our favorite phrases we use in the teaching profession. What are some of yours? Share with us your own favorite sayings in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano taught high school English for twelve years in a Chicago suburb, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.