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Words that teachers use to describe students

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Ben Orlin, at Slate, has published an article about teachers and their words for some students who may have differing abilities (and for good reason, as he notes in his discussion) than school metrics may indicate.

I know a teacher—a great one, actually—who, in private, refers to his students as “bricks.” As in, “dumb as a brick.”

You almost never hear that level of candor among teachers, and not just because every parent’s got a lawyer on retainer. Teachers avoid words like stupid because they know how badly labels can sting, and how long the bruises linger. School shapes you, and no teacher wants to leave scars.

On the other hand, you don’t educate kids by sparing their feelings and reciting politically correct mantras. You do it by confronting their challenges head-on, and showing them how to overcome them.

So when talking to failing students, teachers can’t be too blunt or too circumspect. They’re caught between a rock and a euphemism for a rock.

So how do teachers frame failure for their students? What words do they use?

Some words that Orlin discusses include:

  • slow
  • weak
  • struggling
  • behind

In the insightful discussion that follows this lead-in, Orlin discusses the implications of each and demonstrates the failure of our language to describe a student’s performance of various tasks. For one thing, when a teacher has perhaps over a hundred students a day can they really know what pressures the students face either at home or with their peers? And how that reflects a differing ability say, from the norm, to complete tests or other assignments?

Orlin concludes:

The problem with such language is that it fuels a simplistic view of educational success and failure. We imagine that grades come from a straightforward combination of intelligence and work ethic. “She’s clever, but lazy,” we say. Or, “He’s not too sharp, but he works hard.” Or even, “You made some mistakes, but A for effort.”

But those two variables—intelligence and work ethic—encompass multitudes. Weak, slow, and behind aren’t just PC synonyms for stupid—they each highlight different facets of education, different causes for failure. Just as doctors don’t settle for classifying various forms of abdominal pain as tummy aches, we need a rich vocabulary to describe what happens in our classrooms.

Failure is diverse. Our language should be, too.

For the full discussion, see here: Slate.

More stories about education.

Photo credit: olly –

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  • Placing the interest of the student first by using words to tell the truth while encouraging students, is vital in a learning environment. Since the article mentions, school is the place where the students are molded before stepping into the real world, and it’s essential they are confident about their abilities and aware of their weaknesses.