“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man
as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and
When he wrote those words, could Goethe have
foreseen a modern-day teacher’s reality: student defiance,
lack of academic effort, scattered attention, inappropriate
language, cavalier attitudes, bullying, and exclamations
of “Why me?”
If any of these student behaviors sound familiar to
you, Goethe to the rescue!Here is a strategy I have used
with much success for more than 30 years of teaching—a
strategy that focuses on students as they can and should be.
It allows students to escape the poor behavior in which they
are trapped and be the cool kids they really are.
Accentuate the Positive
Decide what you wish to see in your students with regard
to citizenship, behavior during instruction, and work habits.
Then, throughout each day, notice and acknowledge any
inkling of those attributes. Your toughest cookies need
this acknowledgment most of all, but make no mistake,
all students benefit from respectful, positive stroking.
The key is to not wait for student missteps. Try “Good
morning, Chris. Way to go—thank you for coming in and
finding your seat.” (Saying “thank you” is the assumption of
cooperation.) “Looks like everyone is just about ready to
begin. You guys are all over it. David, you’re on your way—
In reality, David probably was not intending to be “ready
to begin,” but you’re not waiting for students to misbehave,
you’re catching them in the act of behaving, redirecting
with uplifting language, and acknowledging them as
Our language has the power to pull students toward
us and our instruction or push them away into their own
funk. When we constantly admonish, we lose our power to
generate an atmosphere of harmony; we allow that power
to flow into the hands of our most assertively disruptive
Conversely, when we use that power in a positive
way—power we own just because we are the professionals
in charge—good stuff happens. The trick is to guide by
letting students know what we expect, using language
that tells them that they are focused, they are cooperative,
they are polite, and they are good kids. They will begin to
demonstrate these positive behaviors regularly, becoming
what they can and should be. You’re not cajoling, but
exuding confidence through a positive approach.
One of my students (I’ll call him Jason) was absent. Jason
was never absent. Surprised, I asked the students if they
knew where he was. “He got suspended, Miss Dempsey,”
they replied. As I gasped in surprise, one young lady
exclaimed. “He’s not a nice person, Miss Dempsey. He’s just
good to you because you think he’s good.”
Beat Them to the Punch
Our language must be preventive, consistent, persistent,
and genuine. It only takes a few seconds to “catch” them
doing the right thing and say something positive, like
“Good job, guys. You’re so much fun to teach.”
If you’re not a particularly positive person, or are of the
mind-set that people should not be praised for doing the
right thing, this will take some getting used to. You’ll need
to practice in front of your mirror. You’ll see progress the
first few times you “beat them to the punch.”
Instead of: “I only have 10 homework assignments
turned in. What’s wrong with the rest of you?” Say: “I have
10 homework assignments. Let’s see how many more will
be turned in on Friday. We can get to 100%. I’ll help you!”
Instead of: “Ryan, that question has nothing to do with
what we’re talking about. Try paying attention.” Say: “Ryan,
I like that you asked a question. You’re not on topic, but
asking questions shows intelligence and interest. Think of
a question about our subject and raise your hand again,
Instead of: “Anna, you’re tardy again. What’s your excuse
this time?” Say: “Welcome to class, Anna. We’re on page 95.
When you improve self-concept, you improve behavior,
and when you lower self-concept you lower behavior.
Do the Right Thing
Middle grades students are starving for acceptance. They
want to be told what they do right rather than what they do wrong. They’re going through one of the most
difficult periods of life. They are self-conscious, fearful of
criticism, reluctant to take risks and consequently, willing
to do whatever it takes to stave off the repercussions of
Let’s not add to their growing pains. They’re in training.
Soft words, without patronage, give rise to change vs.
challenge. When we bark, they bite. When we instruct and
soothe, they save face while complying. They need us to
correct them in a confident, humane, gracious manner
when they’re wrong. They need to hear from us that they
are good people—even those who have histories of
A particularly intractable seventh grade girl I had
addressed as Sweetheart, haughtily said, “Can I tell you
something, Miss Dempsey?” I calmly answered, “Sure, if
you’re going to say it politely.” She drew in her breath,
changed her tone, and said, “I don’t like to be called
Sweetheart.” I replied, “Thank you for letting me know.
I understand, because I don’t like to be called Hon.” Her
demeanor softened and I was able to redirect her—and
she was willing to receive my direction.
“Treat a man as he can and should be, and he will
become as he can and should be.” Thank you, Goethe!
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012