The other day, I got a great question from an early career teacher.
One of my professors, towards the beginning of my program, told my cohort that we shouldn’t use please or thank you when talking to students. The reasoning was that if we are asking or thanking a student for meeting classroom expectations, that using those words suggests to them that their behavior wasn’t necessary or required of them. In terms of establishing care with students, to build credibility, what is your opinion on this?
This is a provocative question — I love it.
At first, my gut reaction was that this professor's advice sounded something like the old ornery adage, “Don't let them see you smile until Thanksgiving.” I don't subscribe to the Thanksgiving thing at all, and so I thought, “Well, then of course you should say please and thank you to your students often.”
But then I started thinking about what I actually say with my students. Are there times when I say please and thank you to them?
And, to my surprise, I found that my answer was no. I really don't tend to please and thank my students.
So, why don't I do this? Am I just becoming a grumpy old man? Or is there something thoughtful behind my apparent disdain?
I have a couple answers.
First of all, “please” and “thank you” aren't the only ways to communicate to human beings that 1) you recognize their right to refuse cooperation (please), and 2) you appreciate them cooperating (thank you). And so it's possible to express these things without saying them outright. I do think that I'm a teacher that signals to my students a respect for them and their autonomy (please) and an appreciation for them working in earnest in my class and doing the things I teach them to do (thank you).
So, what do I tend to say when I instruct my students to do something? When I think of it, it's stuff that sounds like this:
All right, students — today I want to introduce us to two modes of working: undergrad library and grad library. When I was at U of M, there were these two libraries you could visit. At the undergrad library, you'd find groups at tables, lots of talking, lots of collaborating, lots of hubbub and noise. It was a place for groups to meet, not so much a place for individuals to focus. At the grad library, though, it was the opposite. In the main room, before midterms there would be hundreds of students seated at table after table, but all through the place you'd feel awkward if you so much as turned a page loudly. What I want for us, right now, is to complete one five-minute learning activity in undergrad library mode, and one five-minute learning activity in grad library mode. All right — first up, undergrad library.
Then, I'd introduce a brief learning task to students, I'd have them practice undergrad mode in class, and I'd walk around giving them feedback on how they were doing.
After the time was up, I'd give them some whole class feedback — more of this, less of that, great job with this, let's keep working on that — and then we'd move on to grad library mode.
During it, I'd walk around giving feedback — “Yes, exactly”; “Yup, that's just what to do, you've got it” — and afterwards, I'd give whole class feedback.
So in any of this, am I saying please and thank you? No, not at all.
And I do think, upon reflecting on it here in this essay, that the omission is meaningful. I think that it would feel odd for me to say please to my students in this scenario and odd for me to thank them after.
- Instead of please, I say things like, “Let's begin;” “All right, begin writing;” “Let's start.”
- Instead of thank you, I say things like, “That was well done;” “Gosh, it feels good to watch you all work that well;” “Hey, strong effort there from many of you; others, we'll need to keep working.”
It's not that I never say these things — I don't have any rules like that.
But weirdly, I do kind of agree with the professor here. I think it's a good rule of thumb to remove these words from your vocabulary a bit so that you can get used to speaking like a warmly authoritative teacher.
It's nothing to be religious about, certainly.
But it is a helpful thought.
What do you think?