by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Social Studies Teacher & Learnist Evangelist

If you’ve been in a classroom as long as I have, you’ll know students say some interesting things. You may have seen student test papers with humorous answers. Students always seem to have a reason, excuse, or insight or response for everything. Sometimes, their remarks are so good, I tell them to tweet them. Student wisdom should not be kept secret–we must share it with the world.

But as a classroom teacher, there are things students say that make me think or act. Some of it’s classroom management, but not always. Sometimes what a student says makes me think of my role as a teacher. The remarks hit home. Little kids bring wisdom straight from the heavens, but older kids are getting ready to become adults. They challenge. They question. They should be heard. Here are some things students say in my classes, and the responses I’ve learned to provide.

“What time is it?” “What’s the date?” “What time’s the bell?” “What’re we doing today?” “Was there homework?”

Those are the “Five Unanswerable Questions.” If students ask the time and date, I point to the clock or board like the Ghost of Christmas Future. “What’re we doing today?” gets the same response. All these things are present on my boards, written along with the class goals and the “startup question” they are supposed to do when they enter the classroom. Students need to be responsible for the information and the classroom routine.

“Was there homework,” is a little different. I rarely give traditional homework, but if I ask students to finish something at home or do a little research, I assume they should have recorded it the previous day. After all, we were both in the same classroom communicating, even looking at each other. Even if one of us was mentally on another planet, it’s absolutely pointless to ask what the homework might have been thirty seconds before it’s due unless the student has a virtual assistant on standby.

“I Don’t Get It”

When a student says “I don’t get it,” he or she is really saying, “I want you to do it for me.” The best thing to do is reflect the question. “What don’t you get?” This can take a while, and even cause me to draw lines in the sand. Sometimes, I’ll even break it down into parts, “You don’t get this, or that?” When they are able to formulate the question and explain what they “don’t get,” I know I’ve got a legitimate question and I spend the time with them to make sure they understand.

Unless there’s some feeling of mass confusion, which I can clarify by effectively using formative assessments, “I don’t get it” is a broad-based excuse, and not acceptable in my classroom. Students can research, investigate, and puzzle. Then, we’ll talk about how their answers fit into the bigger picture. Researching, formulating questions, and postulation are higher-level skills student need for their future.

“Why Do We Have to Do This?”

There are assignments throughout a student’s career that are BS. Let’s face it. Students detect busywork, and we’re entering a day and age where they’re trained to question such things. When they ask, I take a moment to tell them why.

Connecting material that seems disconnected is important to get student buy in. I do an awful lot of cross-curricular work intentionally. Although I teach social studies, I look for every opportunity to integrate math, and since I, myself, am a writer, I want student to learn to write in many voices. I connect writing to my lessons as well. I enjoy science and often bring it into my lessons, too.

Analysis, research, and communication skills are also important to me. I call them the “Money Skills.” These are the skills, I tell students, I use in the “real world” to make money. People demand them, not everyone, sadly, has these skills. So, when students are giving a speech–which they loathe–I show them how it’s been effective as a job skill for me. Getting students to do things they don’t necessarily want to do is as simple as connecting it to the mission many times. That’s something that works for adults, when consensus building, too.


Bad language, depending on the age of the student, sends teachers into tailspins. It rarely ruffles me because I teach high school. Still, I have a few students quite addicted to these words. I can’t permit them, but if I wrote up a disciplinary slip every time or gave a teacher detention, I’d never get home or I’d kill a rainforest. There are some simple solutions:

  • Ask nicely.
  • Issue a reminder or interruption every time a bad word is said.
  • Have a swear jar. If they can’t put money in toward a classroom reward, it can be a reverse swear jar, where they take out a task.
  • I like to have students write lists of “100 Nice F Words.”  I tell them to write words that make me smile, “like friends, and fun…” This gentle reminder combined with inconvenience and a little bit of fun is effective. I always enjoy reading their work in the end.

If reminders are creative, students get the message without a ton of negativity and the classroom climate improves.

“I Hate This Class”

It’s the job of kids to be annoyed at adults. I used to be offended when a student didn’t like me. I tried to do everything I could to build a relationship. Although it makes me reexamine my teaching, I realize that it’s not always personal. Sometimes students are having a tough day and striking out at me because I’m there and safe. Generally speaking, they don’t hate me at all.

Still, I ask myself if I am I teaching as well as I could? Did I take enough time to find out the student’s personal interest? Is there a way I can tie that into my class? Usually I can.

Sometimes, teens are being teens and the best response is, “Point noted. I’ve passed that feedback along to the appropriate authorities for action, but since I work for the state/town/city, you should receive a response in approximately four years.” Teens want me to get angry at them when they say such things. I don’t. Emotions change in teens New England weather–every five minutes.

If I still have a disgruntled customer after a class period or day, I take the student aside, “What would you like to see in this class? What changes to this class would make you hate it less?” Sometimes I get a great idea. Notice, I still haven’t asked for approval or for the student to “like” the class. There’s a reason. This is most likely a control issue. “You can’t make me like this, school is stupid.” That’s the psychology.

If I keep asking over time, or notice the student’s personal interests and act on them, “I know you like to read about animals, I was thinking of you and found this article,” eventually the student opens up to learning, and maybe finds that the class does, in fact, connect to his or her interests. At the very least, they eventually thank me for the effort. It’s okay if they don’t like social studies, I tell them. We all have our unique interests and purpose in life. I help them find theirs.

The Things My Students Say

Students say and do so many things to challenge us, to try and throw us off our game, and to get our attention. It’s important to validate these situations in some way. Sometimes it’s a quiet response, sometimes a public one, other times a joke or one on one conversation. Understanding the intent behind the statement is the most important thing. Is the student trying to avoid work, blow off steam, express an idea, or challenge an idea or notion?

When we recognize and appropriately address the underlying theme, the interactions we have with students produce a begin to produce positive effects in terms of growth, better relationships, and a more engaged climate for learning.

Sure, students say the darndest things, but if we’re really listening, we can turn them into learning moments, every time.

The Things My Students Say; adapted image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad