As teachers, guides, and mentors, our words have a powerful effect on our students and that is why we should use them carefully. I have often observed how, when our students perform well in an exam, assignment, or task, the first thing we say to them is, “I am proud of you.” Albeit genuine, of late I have felt that something about this statement is off.
First, it tends to end the conversation. Second, it shifts attention away from the student and onto me, as if my approval was the goal. I wanted my students to spend more time absorbing their accomplishments and taking ownership for their successes. As I experimented with how I responded to their achievements, I discovered four simple strategies.
Share your experience
My favourite phrase to help students slow down and savour a particular achievement is a simple, “Share your experience.” If I have a talkative student and plenty of time to listen, I might even open with a cheerful, “Tell me all about it!”
Student: “I got a solo in the choir show.”
Me: “I’m so happy for you! Share your experience.”
Student: “I got my driver’s license yesterday.”
Me: “Congratulations! Tell me all about it.”
This strategy allows students to relive the moment and magnify their happiness through sharing. I also like the way the open-ended phrase gives students control over the details they choose to share.
“You must be…”
Turning your students’ attention to their emotions also helps them more fully inhabit a moment. To support this, I often make a guess about their feelings. Instead of telling them I am proud, I might say, “Wow! That’s so exciting. You must be really proud.”
I still remember the first time I used this technique. In my project presentation class, I leaned down to talk to a student who otherwise was daring but shyly shared that she had done well on a presentation in a class in which she usually struggled. Instead of saying, “I’m proud of you,” I said, “I know how hard you worked. That must feel so satisfying.” “Yes,” she answered, and then held my gaze with a well of emotion in her eyes. “Yes, it does.”
Although naming students’ emotions sounds as if it might shut down conversation, it generally has the opposite effect. Telling students, “You must be…” about a happy moment may sound unnatural, but some students are just building their emotional awareness and vocabulary, offering them some language can be a powerful opening. The trick is to make sure we pause afterward to allow space for students to confirm, elaborate, modify, or correct the guess – and to be alert to what they communicate with their tone and body language.
“What did you do to make that happen?”
One of my primary goals is to help students become conscious of choices and patterns that lead to success. So, when a student achieves a goal, I often follow up with variations to the question, “How did you make that happen?” I might say, “You got an A on your math test! That’s fantastic. You must feel really happy. What did you do to make that happen?”
Some students can easily list all the steps. Others, less practiced in self-reflection, might answer with “I don’t know” or “I guess the test was just easy.” In that case, I often add my own observations, or questions, to help them build self-awareness: “I noticed that this week you worked with a math tutor and finished three out of five of your math assignments. That seems to have worked for you.”
This gives students the opportunity to own their experience and see the teacher not as someone they are in danger of disappointing but as an ally.
“I appreciate…”or “I admire…”
All of this doesn’t mean I never share my positive feelings with my students. Now, more than ever, I regularly and specifically note positive actions: “I noticed that every student participated at least once in class discussion.” When their actions make my life easier, I let them know: “I appreciate that all of you are here on time because I won’t have to repeat the instructions.” I tell them when I genuinely admire their qualities and talents: “I admire your perseverance in making up your work after your long absence.” While “I’m proud of you” implies that my students should work to please me, “I admire” tells them that they have qualities I respect.
Of course, when a class accomplishes a particularly challenging task or is exceptionally mature, kind, and resilient, I can’t resist telling them I’m proud of them. Also, for those students who are feeling ungrounded, insecure, or unworthy, an authentic “I’m proud of you” might just be what they need the most. In those cases, the words can carry much more than our pride. They can mean that our students are seen, valued, and supported. I believe our praise should not position the teacher at the centre as someone who bestows approval or disapproval. Instead, our feedback should be used as a tool to cultivate in our students a healthy self-awareness and self-trust.
The author is an educator and has deep interest in the integration of life skills with literature for a purposeful and peaceful life. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.