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Watching our words

Saying "should" with students can set the wrong tone. Educators can rewrite internal scripts for a more positive approach.

7 min read


Watching our words


Words are the filter through which we interpret the world and everything in it, including ourselves. Therefore, when we say certain words either aloud or in our minds, caution signs should flash. 

“Should” is one such word. Educators who find “should” popping up in their mind regarding their students need to be aware that they are heading into dangerous territory.

For example, it is commonplace for educators to look at student behavior and say to themselves, “That student should or should not do that.” In essence, we are saying, “This is how I think other people need to act to be consistent with how I think the world needs to be.” “Should” indicates that we think people need to follow our script for how life unfolds. I am not saying that educators must erase “should” from their thinking and speaking or drop their standards for student behavior. But we should be mindful of what we’re saying, what it means and the impact it can have on how we view students and interact with them.

Changing the script

We cannot live without having a script in our mind for our life. It helps us navigate and make sense of our lives. Our past experiences and our reactions to those experiences form a set of assumptions about life that we automatically project onto the future.

Our scripts help us make predictions on what will happen next; the better our predictions, the more comfortable and secure we feel. However, when the word “should” arises too frequently in our scripts, we start to think this way: “Someone or something is throwing off my prediction — the one I need for stability and comfort.” It is human to want our scripts to proceed according to plan; therefore, most of us find it difficult, if not painful, when our lives seem to go off script. 

Many educators may be unaware that they have a script for school and for their students. They can sometimes confuse their script with reality. This confusion arises because schools follow predictable scripts so successfully: Most students, most of the time, do what they are told to do. In schools, following this traditional script becomes the norm for student behavior — only providing more reasons to project the word “should” on students.

Therefore, when students don’t follow the script — i.e., don’t do what they are told to do — teachers can feel negative about them. These students make life in school more difficult for them. Teachers’ feelings become increasingly negative when attempts to get those students to follow the script fail. As a school administrator, I have experienced the impact of educators failing to elicit the behavior that “should” be occurring. These educators can impose such pressure on themselves (and students) to follow their script, that when students fail to meet expectations, they often complain to the principal that these “problem students” “should not” be in their classroom.

Removing obstacles to success

“Shoulds” can make life frustrating. When I was a teenager, I worked as a custodian’s assistant in an elementary school. The custodian did a great job of cleaning the floors every night but was constantly frustrated by how the students “messed up” his work. He didn’t like that his work was undone each day by students. His script said the floors he cleaned should remain clean. He failed to realize that it was impossible for hundreds of kids not to get floors dirty and messy, and that was what his job was all about. The “should” he imposed on students made it difficult for him to accept the reality.

Like that custodian, we are all prone to being captive to our scripts. This happens when we don’t see them for what they are, when we view them as being accurate depictions of reality. Our scripts, however, should be thought of as rough drafts or starting points. They require constant revision when they come up against reality. They can never be finished products or become the final say on what we think life is. 

Once educators become aware that they have scripts, they can begin to change them and subsequently change how they interact with students. The best way to change a script is to change its words, especially certain recurring words. This is why I recommend starting with the word “should.” 

The most effective teachers are the ones who have removed “should” from their way of thinking about students. These educators’ words and actions demonstrate that they have a very different “non-should” script about school and students.

These teachers expect that students will have difficulty doing many things they are asked to do. Their students will not always meet adult expectations. These educators accept their responsibility to anticipate these situations and do something about it. For these educators their students will make mistakes and create problems: That’s how they learn.

Young students, when asked to line up for an activity, can sometimes push and shove each other — something they “shouldn’t” do. The teachers who have dropped the word “should” from their thinking will anticipate this problem and intervene before the pushing and shoving happens. Some of these teachers might put well-spaced footprints on the floor and have the class rehearse lining up. Others might devote time to a classroom meeting discussing problems and generating shared solutions to them. This type of script without “should” can lessen the power struggles many teachers have with their students.

Schools, places of learning, “shouldn’t” be places of “shoulds” for students. Schools “should” be places where mistakes and problems are expected and, daresay, even welcomed. The most effective teachers are willing and open to revising their scripts for how schools work and how students need to act. 

Schools need to be places where it is okay to be human because “to err is human.”

Mistakes are part of path to learning

I recently re-read a quotation from spiritual writer Thomas Merton that applies not just to teaching but to living:

“Mistakes are part of our life, and not the least important part. If we are humble, … we will see that our mistakes are not just a necessary evil, something we must lament and count as lost: they enter into the very structure of our existence … It is by making mistakes that we gain experience, not only for ourselves but for others.”

A great teacher I knew put this sign up in her classroom: “Mistakes are how we learn, and problems are how we grow.” In a world filled with high-pressure expectations and anxiety, we would all do well to remember that teacher’s wisdom. For this teacher and many others like her, mistakes and problems become the real curriculum of their classrooms. 

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Inc., which sponsors the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of “Peaceful School Bus” (Hazelden), “No Place for Bullying” (Corwin, 2012), “Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities” (Corwin) and the picture book “Okay Kevin” (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


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