Powerful Words that EVERY Teacher Needs to Know


“The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” ~Carl Rogers

“How may I help you,” are words that are consistently regarded as the most powerful words in customer service industries, but did you know that these same words can have a huge impact on your classroom?

Student Success

For many years into my teaching experience, I put all of the expectations on the student.  The I say, “Jump,” and you say, “How high?” model of teaching.  While this traditional model of teaching is exactly what my mentors taught me to do, I knew I wasn’t getting the most out of every student.  Of course, I reached some students in the classroom.  But the truth is, those students would be successful no matter who the teacher was standing in front of them.

Then, I was promoted to an administrator.  Everything within the classroom changed for me.  Now, instead of being accountable just for my successful students, I was now accountable to all of the students in the college.  I had to ensure that each of them got the experience that would put them on a track for a successful career and life.  My superiors and I reviewed graduation rates, absenteeism, term grade reports, and anecdotal incidents  on a weekly basis, in order to catch those “at risk” students, before it was too late for them.

Once an “at risk” student was identified, I would schedule a personal meeting with that individual.  (Mind you, I am neither a counselor, nor someone formally trained in counseling.  Also, I am not someone who received formal training in management.)  But I am someone who cares deeply about the success of others, so I did the best I could to turn my “at risk” population into my “graduate” population.  Many times I was successful, and, some times, I was not.

What does student counseling have to do with teaching in the classroom?

Without boring you about the ins and outs of student counseling, during this time I was consuming as much management and student counseling training as I could possibly fit into my schedule.  I subscribed to newsletters, searched the web, and listened to podcasts.

Somewhere is the midst of this, I tried using some powerful words that I had some success with during management issues, and I applied them during to student counseling session.  And they worked.

The words I used are, “How Can I Help You?”  Simple and Powerful.

To be sure, these words are meant to empower a student, not to take accountability away.  I would say these words in a discussion like, “Given the tools and people I have at my disposal, how can I help you?”  How could I help them finish undone work, wrap their heads around a topic, battle with a personal issue, etc.?  Most of the time they would look at me and ask for nothing.  Then say something like, ” I know what I have to do.”

Believe it or not, this tactic usually worked with the students.  I believe this is because I gave them something they weren’t expecting.  They were expecting to get a lecture.  The first thing that students usually said to me upon entering my office was that they felt like they were in the principal’s office.  There was nothing I could do about what they anticipated, but I did everything I could to alter that perception by the time they left my office.  The reason:  I wanted them to look at me like a resource and not like a disciplinarian.  Isn’t this how we all become successful in life?  We look for the resources around us and use them to their fullest potential.

The Classroom

While I was working in administration, I never left my post as a faculty member.  While this made for a hectic schedule and was at times overwhelming, this allowed me to continue to be a faculty peer.  I understood what the faculty concerns were, because I was right there in the trenches with them (which, incidentally, is where every leader should be…another post for another day).

In any case, I was in the classroom with students.  I quickly realized I was hearing the same complaints, frustrations, limitations, etc., as I often heard during counseling sessions.  So, I tried it.  I asked them all, “How can I help you?”   I didn’t just ask it in a group setting, but rather I asked them individually.  What happened amazed me.  They needed less from me than my classes prior ever did.

Why It Works

Have you ever heard that perception is reality?  Well, in this case, I believe this statement is true.  When students feel that their needs are going to be met, the anxiety of the unknown ceases to exist.  Of course, this means that you teachers have to deliver on your promise.  So, when a student does have a question, you need to do the best you can to answer it and make sure that the student feels comfortable with the response.  It is a front-loaded scenario.  You work extra hard in the beginning of a class to make sure all of your students’ needs are met.  Then rather than overwhelm you with more and more need, the students begin to become self reliant.

I believe this is where the most apprehension comes from.  If I spend extra time with one student, I’ll have to do it for them all.  “Do you have any idea how much time that will take,” you may be asking me. However, I can tell you it takes no more time than you would usually spend with students.  But some believe that putting the opportunity for assistance out there will open up a flood gate.  In my experience those people are flat wrong.  In fact, it seemed to me that my students came to me less often.  They found the support they needed early in the class and then became more self reliant as time went on.  They believed in my support.

The following quote sums up the technique perfectly, just replace the word customer with the word student…”The best customer service is if the customer doesn’t need to call you, doesn’t need to talk to you. It just works.” ~Jeff Bezos

Students are not customers; please don’t get me wrong.  However, they are consumers, and we fool ourselves if we don’t recognize that.  Asking students, “How may I help you,” can change the dynamics in a classroom from never satisfied to self sufficient.  While this is just my own observation, I have colleagues who have tried similar techniques and experienced similar results.  How about you?  Have you ever tried to switch the tables in your classroom like this?  What were your results?  How can we all improve the method to make it work across the board?



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