Saturday, June 7, 2014

How to Be the Teacher's Pet: 23 Phrases To Avoid If You Want to Stay on the Teacher's Good Side

I love teaching, and more importantly, I love my students (I really do). But by the end of the school year there are some things that tend to wear a little thin. The students feel the same way. Indeed, after a certain point, there is a feeling among them that the teacher really has no more to teach them. Admittedly, it is a weird relationship. You're there with your particular agenda for them (one that they themselves haven't necessarily chosen), so why should they have to look particularly pleased- no matter how pleased you may be- about what you have in store for them. In any case, I myself am not immune to annoyances either, and therefore would like to offer this opportunity for students to obtain certain brownie points. I know it's a cheap ploy, but I figure if I send up this smoke signal, this "message in a bottle", someone out there is bound to hear me and maybe even start a new trend. If you want to get in good with the teacher, you need not say or do anything at all (though I suppose it couldn't hurt to be overheard commenting about how wonderful the class is, or how much you love the teacher), but there are certain phrases and statements that I would certainly recommend that you avoid. Below I offer a definitive list of them:

1. Are we watching a movie today?

This popular default question is never out of season for students, and it is quite possible to hear it on just about every occasion... including the day after you just finished watching a movie. The only way to combat it (because, like kudzu, you cannot destroy it) is by threatening that you will never show another movie again in class… ever! But I must admit, I rarely have the resolve to follow through on such threats because you know sometimes teachers need a movie too...

2. Is it OK if I use my glitter pen?

I am all for bright and happy colors, combined with students who have an equally sunny disposition, but a teacher's got to draw the line somewhere.

3. Really?!? We have a test today?!?!?!?

When a teacher puts an assignment on the board a week in advance, and a student expresses shock and horror on the day in which the aforementioned assignment is due, this can create a certain level of consternation on the part of the teacher. After all, in the teacher's mind, he has gone out of his way to prepare the student for success, and the student seems to have gone out of his way to remain oblivious. Obviously this annoys the teacher to no end because he wants his students to do well, but it also annoys him because it feels a little like a personal snub. In other words, this is how little I listen to you Mr. Whatever You Name Is I Don't Care. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, he or she wants you to know just how casually they take your class (and/or classes in general), but in all likelihood, they probably did know there was a test, and may in fact be doing this for dramatic purposes alone. On the other hand, maybe they are just as shocked as the koala bear in the above picture.

4. Inquiring when an assignment is due immediately after the teacher has just announced WHEN THE ASSIGNMENT IS DUE!

In fairness to most students, there is usually a collective groan whenever one of their classmates says something like this. However, as a teacher you do wonder at these moments how much of what you're saying is getting through, and how much actually sounds a little something like this; "Meow Meow Meow, Bar Bar Bar Bar, Wah Wah Wah Wah Wah Wah" (insert melody from the famous Meow Mix commercial).

5. Are we going to do anything fun in class today?

Why is it that students can't ask me this question on the day in which we celebrate Magical Cupcake with Sprinkles Day, or Free Giant Bag of Candy For No Reason Day, or better still, Nerf Wars in the Hallway Day? My sense is, just as teachers have eyes in the back of their heads, so also students have a  keen sense when the teacher is about to impose upon them some onerous form of note-taking. This last ditch effort to forestall the teacher's game plan rarely accomplishes its aim, but on the bright side, at least it starts off class on a particularly irritating note.

6. Can I go to the Bathroom/Nurse?

Obviously I have no problem with a student requesting a visit to the bathroom/nurse when necessary. However, there are certain times when a request can be particularly cloying. For example, when students have just returned from an hour long lunch break (which would seem to be a more than adequate time to fulfill that need), or when there is three minutes left until the end of the day, I have a little more difficulty restraining my naturally sarcastic tongue. Perhaps my classes serve as a natural diuretic- and just being in my presence inspires students to have to rush to the facilities, I do not know. But whatever the provocation, there does seem to be some strange correlation between arriving at my classroom and the need to visit the restroom. On a similar note, some students seem equally inclined to visit the school nurse, but not upon entering the room, rather they prefer to wait until the exact moment the bell rings- as if attempting to synchronize their request with the worst possible moment.

7. But I didn't know that I was responsible for getting that assignment…

There is nothing like the look of a high school student who- after missing a week or so of school- is completely dumbfounded that I would expect that they might have made some effort to get the assignment. I mean it's not like the teacher would have put this in the syllabus, or emphasized it at the beginning of the semester. Moreover, it's not like there's such a thing as social media, I Phones, Twitter, e-mail, Renweb, and everything else under the sun by which they could have gotten this information. I know, it wasn't possible for you to get it, you were meditating on the divine mysteries in some mud hut in the outer reaches of Mongolia, with no internet connection, electricity, or any other contact with the outside world. Fair enough. But perhaps the next time you plan a visit to Mongolia, it would make sense that you discuss your assignments with the teacher beforehand.        

8. That doesn't make sense…

It may seem like a small matter, but sometimes the way a student phrases something makes all the difference in the world. Ordinarily, teachers pride themselves on trying to make complex issues simple and accessible to their students. So when a student flippantly uses the words "…that doesn't make sense", it sounds (at least from the teacher's perspective) like you are saying; "You are a bad teacher, and not only that, you don't know what the hell you're talking about it." Whenever I hear these words, I am generally inclined to offer a slight correction;"No, kind student, it makes perfect sense, you just don't happen to understand it."

 9. Thursday??? We already have seven tests and three papers due on that day?

OK, I am all for giving students a break, and more importantly, having flexibility when it comes to tests/assignments deadlines, but there is a limit to my sympathy. Note to students: if you declare that you have more tests coming up than actual classes you are taking, then your credibility level goes down considerably. Note also to students: homework does not usually qualify as a "test". Note also also to students: if your assignments begin to pile up, and you find yourself overwhelmed because you have three papers due on a particular day, you may want to blame yourself rather than the teacher who assigned the paper two months ago. I do understand that when you are stressed out the facts may tend to get a little muddy in your mind, and when emotions run high you are willing to say just about anything to get out of your particular predicament, but exaggerating to such a large extent may in fact have the reverse effect. By the way, speaking of credibility issues...

10. Everyone is failing that class…

Once again, I understand that exaggeration is in some ways the life blood (for good and ill) of the high school experience, and that as far as young people are concerned, what's going on in their circle of friends may as well be representative of the whole human race. However, numbers really can lie in this instance. Just because there are three people in your circle, and two of them happen to be failing the same class, does not mean that "everyone is failing". Your clique may represent everything to you, but as important as they are, they are not necessarily representative of everyone. Consequently, while you may want to direct a certain level of outrage towards your teacher (as well as obtain sympathy for yourself), it would be advisable to hold off on your mutiny for the time being, lest like the "pied piper" you find yourself leading a revolt with no more than an army of a couple soldiers behind you.

11. I hate/love that teacher; that teacher hates/loves me

The phrase moderation/middle ground does not exist in high school. For this reason I would describe a day in the life of a high schooler as something comparable to the Dow Jones. You can be the king of the world in the morning, and by the afternoon feel like the biggest loser. Been there, done that, and lived to the tell the tale. It is undoubtedly a difficult time for anyone. Yet part of the reason for all the drama, is well, all the "drama." It's all or nothing all the time. Everything is the best/worst, highest/lowest, most horrible/ most awesome, on and on. In part this is understandable, because who wants to be the boring young guy/girl who has nothing interesting to report. The only thing that really gets people's in this world attention is hyperbole, so the "drama" of high school requires a whole lot of "Hey over here, look at me, I have something incredible to say!" This is in part why it is almost unthinkable to hear someone say something like this about a teacher; "While Mr. Chapman and I have complex relationship, there is, in the end, I think, a kind of mutual respect between us…" Naaaa. I hate Mr. Chapman, and he hates me too!

12. This school is like a prison...

Uh yeah, not really. File this under the category of things that high schoolers complain about when they  really have nothing to complain about… but still want to complain. Look, I get it, I too went to a nice private high school as well, and I too had to manufacture outrage about following a set of stupid rules that I didn't think made any sense to me at the time either (and some I still don't understand). But let's be real here, this is what we call "first-world problems", and if you think about it,  complaining about such minor inconveniences only makes it all too apparent that perhaps you haven't experienced enough major inconveniences.

13. I totally didn't study for that test…

Much like its close cousin; "I'm totally going to fail this test", this phrase is generally uttered in vain. What I mean to say is that the phrase is spoken more or less to attract attention, not to state a fact. Thus, what can be particularly galling about this type of student is just how far from failing they actually come. As an average student myself in high school, I remember initially taking great comfort in the fact that some of the better students would say this, thinking that I wasn't the only one who was nervous about the test. Soon however my consolation was abruptly taken from me, for instead of those students struggling on the test, quite the contrary, they were the ones who "miraculously" received an "A". Strangely enough, they rarely seemed surprised by these results, which is particularly odd considering just how keen they were on telling everybody how little they "studied" for it.

14. Can we go outside today?

In truth I have nothing against going outside. In fact, it can be a wonderful change of pace, especially when those four walls of the classroom seem to be closing in on you. But as a teacher there is a never-ending tug-of-war that goes on between pupil and pedagogue, a nagging suspicion (fair or not) that everything that gets thrown at you from a student is nothing more than a cheap ploy to prevent you from reaching your goal; a rank paranoia that leads you to question your students even when they are genuinely seeking answers to questions; "So why do you want to know the answer to that question huh? Why are you so curious about what we're talking about today, when you haven't been all year? Huh!? Huh!? Tell me!!! LIES ALL OF THEM! And that paranoia alone is probably a good reason in itself for going outside, even if you're probably right about their intentions.

15. Can we have a study hall?


16. Can this test be 'open notes'?


17. Do we have to do anything today?


(Quick direct answers are the best way to stave off student delay tactics, especially like the ones presented in examples 15-17)

18. Is there any way I can do some extra credit to bring my grade up?

Don't get me wrong, I am all for this type of student initiative. However, the problem arises not with the idea of "extra credit", but with the student's foot dragging approach to it. If a student asked me mid-quarter for this kind of opportunity, we would have no problem. But does anyone (including the student who asks me) really think that an appropriate time for extra-credit is, let's say, after the semester exam study guide has been handed out? Yet, surprisingly enough, these types of requests are not all that uncommon. Another problem with such an approach is the belief that if one accomplishes their task, I should in turn wipe away everything done and undone by them prior to that. But even that I could countenance were the student truly willing to go to heroic lengths to impress me. Alas, they are not. No, rather they are under the bizarre impression that somehow they are doing me a favor by requesting it, and that whatever they turn in to me under that banner- however half-hearted or half-baked- requires from me nothing short of a summa cum laude.

19. I didn't know we weren't supposed to... (insert anything that the student should already know)

When a student has no real alibi, this is perhaps his last resort; "How was I supposed to know that you wanted this paper typed? Well, I said it in class. But I don't remember you telling us that, and furthermore, I asked another student, and they don't remember it either. OK, listen, we haven't had one paper or project due this year that hasn't needed to be typed… Well, we did have that one project… Oh, for the love of Pete!!!" This is how it goes sometimes, and it can go on like this forever (which is why our society has become a bureaucratic nightmare); from dress codes, to honor codes, to I phones, to any and every rule. Thus, if ever you are lacking a clean escape route from anything, and the rules are clearly not in your favor, and a plea of insanity is off the table, a look of complete dismay and utter confusion, along with a sad but gentle tone, may be your ticket out (just as it may work with a police officer). But don't expect me, or anyone else for that matter, to like you for it.

20. Anything that involves Seniors complaining about 2nd semester work

Nothing else in life works this way, but for some reason there is this idea that when a Senior is sick to death of studying (which I am not denying is often the case), that means that they are practically absolved of the need to put forth any effort. Recently in the news I saw this story of a bicyclist (bless his heart), who thought he was coming to the finish line, so he slowed down and lifted his arms in victory. It turns out he had one more lap to go, and subsequently wound up coming in 45th place. All I'm saying is that I understand you're burnt out and want to be done yesterday, just as I imagine any marathon runner would feel the same way coming down the home stretch. But God forbid you (or any marathon runner) should make it all that way, and disgrace the rest of his performance, by giving nothing at the end. Part of the problem is that oftentimes we are not running the race for the right reason, and so instead of finishing strong in the name of God (or some other noble cause), we stop altogether because the world says there's nothing in it for us. Consequently, instead of going that extra mile for the right reason, we wind up going one too few for the wrong one.

21. Don't colleges remove the "religion" grade from your overall GPA?

I am well aware of the inevitable problem with teaching a subject that is at once above all other subjects, and below them at the same time, but this question nevertheless chafes me, and frankly turns my face sour in the same way that a whiff of Muenster kaese does. It may be true that there is some specially hired administrator (what could his salary be?) whose job it is to remove all frivolous "electives" from the student's application, but what he cannot "excise" is the deep and abiding need in every individual to see themselves as something more than a functionary and a bureaucrat. Yet what is most tragic about today's education is that while most students want more than anything to find purpose and meaning in their lives, the Kool-Aide of conformity and college admissions, has convinced them that wisdom and knowledge are ultimately "electives", while materialism and meaninglessness are "essential."  

22. Why did the school have to give us that particular day off?

This example is a very specific one, but it is meant as a kind of catchall for every time a student regards something good as if it were a punishment. Some time back, the head of our school gave us an extra day off in honor of a special occasion in the Church, and no sooner had the principal finished, then I heard a student complain about it. What could he or she have possibly been complaining about? They wanted the day off to be on a Monday and not a Tuesday. At that moment I knew that if someone could complain about that, then there was no gift on the face of the earth that is beyond our ability to complain about it. Geesh. I know it's easy sometimes to find fault with everything, and the truth is you wouldn't have to listen very long to hear the same thing among the faculty (see the above post), but generally speaking if you get something that is inarguably good (like a day off), even if it is not packaged in the exact way you would have preferred, the appropriate response is simple: Thank you.                          

23. Do you offer test corrections?

Test corrections, really? What is this sixth grade?

Honorable Mention: "I heard the other class got to…"; "Mrs. McGillicutty always used to let us…"; "They can't look through my car/phone! What about my privacy?"; What time is this class over (accompanied by incessant looking over at the clock)?; "If you could have your dream job Mr. Chapman what would it be?"; "Do you ever do anything during the summers?"

With gratitude to all my students past and present


  1. Don't forget the feminine hand raised, palm out, while the owner of the hand interrupts her whispered conversation with a classmate to tell you "I'm having a bad day."

  2. I like the image, and can even imagine it, but I am not sure I have experienced anything quite like that.

  3. My favorite has always been, "That's not fair!!" My students learned fairly quickly that this statement was anathema in my classroom.

  4. A good one to add to the list! Interesting, when you give them too many points on a test, "fair" isn't as important.

  5. Very funny and not . . . it is a sad commentary on the state of our youth today. With the breakdown of the family, which is under attack and in grave crisis right now, there is coinciding with this, the complete disrespect of authority on every level. Popular culture perpetuates it. What is to be done? The only answer is the renewal of the family and education.

  6. This is hilarious. I can't wait to show it to my 16 year old when he returns from a mission trip with his dad. He was over the teens in his class complaining that their APUSH test was the same day as their Bio test on a cat dissection. Horrors of horrors!! As long as there have been modern teens, they have acted like this. It is not unique to this generation nor is it evidence of the decline of western civilization. A simple no from a teacher usually shuts it down. Like 3 year olds, if they think whining will work they will whine. Once they realize they are waiting their breath, they will stop.

    1. I hate auto-correct. That should read "wasting their breath".

  7. Great post! So funny because it's so true.

    I'd like to add to #18 - extra credit: It's so frustrating when *the parent* asks for a conference during the last 2 weeks of school to find out "if there's anything we can do" to pick up Little Tommy's grades.

    And, of course, it's expected - even by the administration - that something will be offered. Sheesh!

  8. On #18, extra credit: I had a brilliant teacher for Humanities, and on every test, she had one extra credit question any decent student could answer correctly: "What did you learn about (in this segment) that I didn't ask about on the test?" It could be a short answer or an essay, student's choice. The only way to get that kind of question wrong would be to say something like, "You have to cross the river Hades to get to Styx." lol

    This is an excellent post. I'm not a teacher but work in a parish with a school, and do teach a few things through the parish.

  9. It's funny sometimes even when I am trying to give extra credit certain students find a way not to take it. For example, I might put something like; "name a word that ends in 'amburger'" just for fun, and still some will find a way not to get the extra credit.

  10. TRUE, every bit of it!!!!! It's like you read my mind, seriously!