4 common student phrases - and what they really mean

These common comments from students may say one thing, but they usually mean something far more revealing

Jo Steer

Child surrounded by giant ice creams

As teachers, many of us find ourselves repeating the same stock phrases – phrases that politely say one thing, but mean something slightly different. And less polite...

“You have so much potential,” often means, “pull your finger out.”

“Great answer! You’re on the right lines but not quite there…” equates to “Are you kidding me?!”

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And, of course, the king of all report comments: “Jonny is such an outgoing and lively member of the class,” aka, “Jonny is more intent on getting laughs than learning anything.”

But what about students? Is there a gap between what they say and what they really mean? I think there might be… 

1. 'I love Mr Jacob’s lessons!'

They might well mean that they love Mr Jacobs; the way he nurtures their creativity, curiosity and talent.

However, if there’s even a whiff of mischievousness in the air, I’d wager there’s a less wholesome reason behind the student’s sudden love of geography.

Is Mr Jacobs an NQT, who hasn’t quite got his handle on behaviour management just yet? Or perhaps he’s an old-school rebel, happy for kids to chew and text their way through his lessons, so long as they do it quietly. Either way, what they’re really saying here is: "I love this lesson because I get to break rules without any consequences."  

2. 'Ms Willis is picking on me. She hates me'

Unless they have behaved particularly poorly for Ms Willis, right from the off, and assuming that she isn’t actually victimising this poor, long-suffering student, then what the student is actually protesting here is inconsistency.

They’re saying that Ms Willis calls them out on things that other teachers ignore or allow…so it feels unfair.

If all teachers were singing from the same behaviour policy, Ms Willis wouldn’t stand out much more than being overly strict. If, however, the kids rock up from Mr Jacob’s geography lesson, where the only rule is there are no rules, Ms Willis quickly becomes the devil incarnate.     

3. 'I have anxiety/depression so I can’t take part'

While the cases of genuine mental illness have shot up among students, so too have the number of kids self-labelling in order to opt-out of anything that feels remotely difficult or uncomfortable.

Often, what kids are really saying here is: "I’m deeply afraid of taking part in this and I don’t have the skills/knowledge/tools in order to deal with this.” They seek avoidance but what they need is help, whether it’s from you or someone else. 

Just as an EAL pupil would require differentiated support in reading and writing English, so too does a child who is extremely shy need something more in order to practise speaking in front of the class.

4. 'I hate school'

Perhaps they mean that the overly academic and creatively oppressive school system does not motivate, inspire or serve them. 

Perhaps they’re utterly disinterested in lessons that revolve around sitting exams, reviewing exams and teaching exam technique.

Or perhaps, they’d just rather be somewhere else and this is the politest way they can find to say it.

I'm just guessing after all – I’m not a mind-reader...

Jo Steer is an experienced teacher and Tes columnist. She tweets @Skills_w_Frills

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