Dumb stuff teachers say

Now that I’ve gotten your attention with my snappy title, I would like to clarify by stating that this article is not to diss the daily effort put in by teachers in class. Rather, it is a good-natured ribbing to prod teachers into thinking about the impact of what they say in the classroom.

Like it or not, teachers do speak an awful lot everyday, and the repetitions and mental fatigue do lead to some bloopers .

Being sages and gurus and all, teachers have a tendency to dispense worldly advice for their students. Most of the time, it turns out great. Some life-changing, inspiring, insightful food for thought.

However, there are times when the intended advice did not pass through the same logical filter, and seems odd and perplexing on the yearning audience. It may not matter to most, as most students may not fully internalise the gravity of such statements upon first hearing. Subsequent repeats though, may eventually lead to the realisation that the foundations weren’t solid to begin with.

Every one is entitled to a brain fart once in a while. But when such statements are repeated through the ages, it does beg the question if the impact was somewhat lost.

Have you been in a class where your teacher declared such statements which seemingly made sense, but on second thought, seemed to lack something concrete? Or, as a teacher, have you even mentioned such gems in front of the class and not realised the problem?

Or! Do similar statements exist in different forms in other parts of the world where you’re reading this right now?

If you get mad during an argument and can’t figure out why, there is a chance of a logical fallacy being committed in the conversation. When reasoning is flawed and cannot reach a sensible outcome, it winds people up.

While recently reading up casually on logical fallacies, I was surprised by how many of these teacherly statements ended up being maddeningly illogical. In the spirit of fun, I’ve also fleshed out the statements to identify what exactly it is about these statements that drive me nuts.

Most of these statements have been accumulated over several years of conversations with other colleagues. You’d be surprised how many of these are still relevant in the staffroom today.

By nature of the trade, teachers sometimes talk too much. But by keeping quiet and listening, it is amusing to realise how many people actually speak without thinking.

I had quite a bit of fun recalling and mapping these sagely statements with their fallacies. I have also taken the extra step to point out what is wrong with these statements. Have a read and check out how many of these bring back timeless classroom memories!

“Those who know, will be able to do it. Those who don’t know, won’t be able to do it.”

Why it is funny: Circular Reasoning

The context of this statement originated from teachers fretting over the national examination question paper, dissecting questions which are “out of the ordinary”, and fretting whether they adequately prepared their students to handle such curveballs. Eventually, someone in the group would arrive at this sagely conclusion, while the rest nod in agreement.

Seriously, what is this the purpose of this statement? Is there a 3rd outcome where students “don’t know it, but yet are able to do it?” Or better yet, students who “know it, but are not able to do it?” If they knew their stuff before stepping into the exam hall, why even have exams in the first place? And it they didn’t manage to master it before sitting for the paper, why sweat it?

“You are the worst class I have taught in my 5 / 10 / 15 / 100 years of teaching.”

Why it is funny: Strawman Fallacy

Ok, how is this statement beneficial at all? Because the best case scenario would be to tune this out completely.

The Strawman Fallacy is a cheap and easy method to make one look stronger than it actually is, by diverting the blame to a position which is totally misconstrued.

Think about it – the only “positive” outcome by heeding such advice would be to live down to the self fulfilling prophecy of being Worst Class Ever, leaving Mr S and his class to eke out a wretched existence for the rest of the year, because there really isn’t any upside to live up to.

Having been on the receiving end of such statements while in school, I can honestly say the reverse psychology tactic did not work at all, because there never was any indication on how to work the label off.

Were we supposed to sit up straighter?

Talk lesser?

Listen harder?

Perhaps the only thing that happened was to care lesser after every berating.

Also, does being the worst class deter students from pursuing their hopes and dreams? They could still be a lawyer / doctor / athlete / builder / a teacher just like Mr S.

If anything, the statement reflects that the quality of Mr S’s teaching is “the worst ever in his entire teaching career”. Lamenting about the hand of cards being dealt suggests a one-trick pony who cannot teach differently to save the class.

As a teacher, I struggle at times to recall my worst class – mainly because I never regarded them as such.

It just made more sense to not think the worst of any student.

“Pay attention here – this will be tested in your upcoming exam” / “You will need to know this to score in your test”

Why it is funny: Appeal to Ignorance

So what you’re trying to say here is to only tune in when you signal for it?

Does every other sentence without said reminder count as unimportant then?

Also, what happens when said reminder is mentioned 10000 times?

Which of the 10000 reminders becomes the most important?

As humans, we cannot be expected to know everything. Appealing to one’s ignorance is a good strategy to highlight the extent of our ignorance, but the final goal shouldn’t be an arbitrary score to develop an academic skill which has very little bearing on a student’s future life.

Last I checked, those who heeded my advice to plot graphs correctly and those who did not were all doing fine in life.

“Look at all these mistakes. Seriously, I want to vomit blood when I mark scripts like these.”

Why it is funny: it isn’t, really.

Among all the statements, this one annoys me the most.

To be fair, I was very close to uttering such statements when I started teaching. There were times when the quality of thinking, accuracy and penmanship were lacking when grading their papers.

However, upon internalising the problem, it always boiled down to how effective certain concepts were communicated. Looking back, some were too brief, and some waffled on for too long. Some required an appropriate funny story, while some analogies required an update.

Benchmarking such exasperation to the sensation of vomiting blood is contemptuous.

The most obvious blindspot here would be absolving oneself of blame. Doesn’t this whole “vomit blood” phenomenon reflect one’s ineffective teaching practices, rather than a candidate’s ability to provide a satisfactory answer?

Another interesting observation to note is that such statements are uttered in the insular safety of the staffroom. Because, yes, they do know how terrible it sounds to be uttered in the presence of students.

Bottomline, this is just plain mean.

“Consider yourselves lucky. Students in X part of the world do not have access to such things”

Why this is annoying: Hasty Generalisation

Note that I didn’t mention that this was funny at all. It took me a while to synthesise what was wrong with this statement.

The original intention here is clear and ethically healthy. Be grateful for what you have. Don’t moan over material needs which you do not possess. Instead of pining for the next Smartphone which can do This and That, be grateful that you have a phone at all.

However, holding on to such a belief belies a more deep-rooted problem.

It reflects a dangerous sense of self-entitlement, which, when passed on to the next generation, breeds a level of superiority which can be very difficult to address. And already, it is gradually getting difficult to draw the line.

The main problem here is equating academic excellence to being better off in life. But it also results in unnecessary pity towards those in other countries who may lack the same level of infrastructure luxury.

Donating pre-loved stationery like textbooks, calculators and sports equipment to developing countries has become increasingly popular. It brings about a high level of satisfaction to the giver, knowing that such items are being put to good use. Matching such items directly to recipients with high needs is a mapping exercise which ensures that benefits are sustained by multiple parties.

However, here lies the fallacy: who is to judge that such equipment are received with the same level of needs in mind?

But, we did the research! These are the items which they listed high on their list, and we are providing these to benefit them!

For many developing countries, various equipment are often found wanting, and they definitely would like to receive certain items to strengthen their current status.

For the developed countries, Service Learning is a great way for students to expand their learning beyond the classroom, and to ensure students remain grounded and appreciative of what they have.

It is laudable to conduct such background research prior to extending help, and I am sure most Developed Countries’ Frameworks and Needs Analyses all point towards the same outcome.

And of course they would, since such rubrics were designed by the very people from the very same Developed Countries in the first place.

However, the main flaw in thinking here is that recipients will benefit just as much.

Few years ago, I participated in a service learning project to donate calculators, in a bid to improve the national mathematics curriculum in another country. Yes, training was provided. By flying in twice a year, I was part of a team to equip trainee teachers with the necessary skill set to master the use of the calculator and how to use it improve their Math curriculum. Based on how the calculator was used in class, I designed a set of notes to help the trainee teachers align it to the various Mathematical strands like Statistics, Calculus and Geometry, The notes were even translated into the native language.

One day after lessons, one of the trainee teachers came to speak to me. In simple English, he asked how much the calculator cost.

Approximately 150 USD.

That is a bit more than my salary, was the reply. I think most of my friends and myself cannot afford it.

And that kind of rendered the rest of the conversation useless after that. He thanked me politely for conducting the workshop, which he said was helpful. But realistically, no matter how many pre-loved calculators we ship over, it does not address the problem of improving their curriculum, which was not even a problem they considered fixing. Because a lot more hurdles have to be cleared before they can even sit down to think about how to use calculators to improve their national assessment.

Best case scenario: the calculators will stay packed in their boxes gathering dust.

Worst case scenario: the calculators will be sold on the black market for pure profit.

Actually, scratch that. I’m not sure which scenario qualifies as best and worst anymore.

How many of these statements resonate with you? Drop a comment below and let me know what you think!

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