Posted in Education, Teaching

How to Tactfully Say, “Oh no, You’re Wrong” to a Student

While as a dad, I tell it like it is to my son.  If he does or says something inappropriate or wrong, I call him on it right away.  I don’t worry about using tact because I want my son to always know what is right.  I praise him when he does or says the right thing, but I also come down hard on him when he makes poor choices.  I don’t yell at him or anything aggressive like that, but I will be stern and say something like, “You made a very bad choice.  Your words hurt another person.  That’s not okay.  You need to fix the situation.  What are you going to do?”  This usually sends him the message that what he did was wrong and that he needs to remedy the issue.

However, when it comes to my students, I feel as though I need to tactfully go about pointing at poor choices or words that could be misconstrued as negative or stereotypical.  While I can, I don’t feel as though I should just come out and say, “No, you are wrong” when a student makes a statement that could be viewed by others as inappropriate.  No, I’m not a fan of the politically correct world in which we live.  I hate that I feel as though I have to walk on broken styrofoam bottles when teaching in the classroom. But, unfortunately, that’s the current state of affairs in our world.  So, I succumb to the pressure and do what society tells me I should do.

Today in Humanities class, we had a great discussion about the recent Paris attacks.  The class began with the students reading through a news article about the current event.  They had four guiding questions to discuss and answer as they read the article with their table partner.  I emphasized the importance of having a discussion and demonstrating effective coexistence.  This activity took about 10 minutes and went very well.  The boys delegated tasks and had some insightful discussions about what happened last week in Paris.  This then lead into a full group discussion on the topic.  We reviewed what happened, where it happened, and when it happened.  Then, we talked about why it happened.  This part was the most engaging for the boys as they had so much to say.  We talked about ISIS and what the acronym represents.  I then got into the motivation and intent of ISIS, which interested several of my students.  One of the boys said, “Members of ISIS are muslim and they are the ones who committed the acts of terrorism in Paris.”  Rather than allow the rest of my students to believe that all muslims are terrorists, I tactfully responded: “While it’s possible that some members of terrorists groups are muslim, it’s also possible that not every member is of that faith.  Not every muslim is a member of a terrorist group.  This line of thinking lead to what we saw in America following the 911 attacks.  People started attacking and killing every person who looked even slightly like he or she might be of Middle-Eastern descent.  We need to judge people by their actions and choices, not their appearance or religious beliefs.”  So, rather than just saying, “Oh no, you are really wrong,” I found a more meaningful way to convey the fact that some of what this student had said was inaccurate and could be viewed as stereotypical or biased.  Yes, I wanted to just call a spade a spade, but I also wanted to model the appropriate and compassionate behavior I expect from my students.  So, I took the high road on this one.  But, I didn’t really like how I worded it.  It felt verbose.  Did the students receive the message I was attempting to convey or because I said so much was my message lost?

Following the lesson, I had a chance to ask my co-teacher, “I really wanted to just say (to that student) you are wrong, but I didn’t think it would be the right thing to do.  That is one area I need to work on when guiding discussions.  How do I point out that what a student said is wrong or inaccurate without saying, ‘You are wrong?'”  She explained how this was handled at her last school.  “We talked to the students about perspective coming from prior knowledge, which comes from one’s family, beliefs, and what they might have heard from the media.  So if a student says something that is inaccurate, we explain how their perspective isn’t wrong, but that the knowledge used to inform their perspective may be inaccurate and so we want to provide them with accurate information on which to base their perspective.”  Oh, I like that.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  Every opinion or thought we have comes from somewhere to inform and create our perspective.  So, rather than point out that they are wrong, we can focus on the information or prior knowledge and point out how that is flawed or inaccurate.  That way, it’s not about the student, it’s about what they had learned.  This makes a lot of sense.  I really like that.  I think this will be my new default response when guiding discussions.  If a student says something inaccurate or inappropriate, I will focus on the behavior and not the student.  It’s like the Parts Language I use with my son.  He is not a bad person, but the bad language parts he sometimes uses are inappropriate.  I like it.  It’s a sensical and not overly PC way to say, “Oh no, you are wrong.”

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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