Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.21.16On ‘Please’ and ‘Thank You’

[This post is updated w additional comments added at the end on 1.22].

This week NPR ran a piece on “no-nonsense classrooms” and described a program that advised teachers not to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

Some people might think I would agree with this advice.  A few have even suggested that this guidance ultimately derives from Teach Like a Champion.  So I want to take a minute to give you my two-cents worth:

I strongly disagree with the advice. IMO, you should definitely use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with your students. As much as you can. In fact in my books I write explicitly about how important please and thank you are.  There are more than 20 examples of teachers using please in dialogues–real or ideal–with students.  And then there’s this section about a bunch of ways they are important.

When society is in decay, “please” and “thank you” are the first things to go. It’s useful to signal that civility and thus society are fully intact in your classroom by modeling “please” and “thank you” constantly, especially when students might see evidence of fraying.

After that I go on to describe some more pragmatic implications:

In other words, when you see Maya making a disruption during your science lesson, you want to say, “Hands to yourself, please, Maya” or, even better, something more specific like “Hands folded in front of you, please, Maya.” Then, when Maya folds her hands, you can say, in a low and slightly muted tone: “Thank you.”

“Thank you” reinforces expectations and normalizes compliance in the subtlest way possible. You would only say thank you because Maya followed your direction. Therefore, “thank you” subtly reminds everyone else in the class that Maya did just that. The interaction ended with your reinforcing expectations successfully.

In reading over it now I realize that there are some even more basic things left unsaid there.  Frankly it never really dawned on me that you would need to explain those things- that you want students to treat you and others with decency, civility and caring, even if you must ask them to do things they may not be inclined to do, and therefore you should both model what that decency, civility and caring looks like. Please and thank you do this. They also help you express your caring and respect for students. They do this in the happy moments but they do it MOST in the moments that are most fraught.  Again, I think the examples in TLaC, which are full of please and thank you implicitly make this case, but the response to the article–in fact the article itself–has made me see that it’s useful to be more explicit: Say please and thank you to reinforce your caring for and respect for the students in your room. Maybe not in every single situation but as often as you can.

Here for example is an interaction I had yesterday with a student whom I care a great deal about: my son.

He did not want to take out the compost.  Of all the chores we ask of our kids, it’s the one he hates the most. He announced that he didn’t want to.  Look, I get it.  It’s smelly and often gross, and it was 20 degrees and windy outside. Who’d want that job?  Yet the compost had to go out.  So I asked him again.  But I used please. As in, “I’m sorry you don’t like it.  It’s not the best job.  But please take out the compost.”  There was further grumbling on the issue of who takes out the compost most often.  He’s probably right that his sister does it less than him. She finds other ways to be helpful, but I get it.  Still, the compost must go out and, honestly, we were wasting our time debating it. If he would just take it out we could do something nice together when he came back in. So I said with “We all have chores to do. Please take out the compost.”  Very calm, quieter and slower, careful to keep any edge out of my voice just like the teachers I’d observed. And I glossed it with a ‘please’ and when he picked up the compost and moved towards the door, a ‘thank you.”  Both were tiny reminders of the caring, cordiality and civility between us.

Needless to say it is and should be exactly the same in the classroom. I get it. You are tired and don’t feel like writing right now.  But write you must.  “Please pick up your pencil and begin writing.”  Why do we always have to write so much? Because it makes us smarter.  And the time we’d spend arguing we could put to use doing something else. “We have work to do. Please begin writing.”  And when the student picks up his pencil, “Thank you.”  Doesn’t have to be over the top. Just a quick acknowledgment.  That to me is how a good classroom rolls.  High expectations and when in doubt err on the side of cordial, caring and civil. In the long run that’s a big part of building mutual respect. Plus the more civil you are the more in control of the situation you seem. So please and thank you are wins all around for me.

Please continue using them. Thanks!


Two quick thoughts.  1) Can please sound wrong? Yes!  Several readers pointed this out.  SO some clarification: It should not be a pleading please but a firm respectful, “I am saying please and i expect you to respond” please. Usually that means very little pause after the please and very little emphasis on the word.  “Please take out your notebooks” in a steady rhythm with please no more emphasized than the rest of the words.  “Please…. take out your notebooks” is a sign of trouble, Subtle but important.

Also: re “no-nonsense nurturing,” the program described in NPR’s piece.  I don’t know it very well and for all I know it is a very good program. It sounds very intentional about word choice and that’s usually a good thing.  I am responding to a media outlet’s description of one aspect of their  program.  I have been on the receiving end of that before and found the distortion very frustrating so i am not judging a program i know little about. I hope readers will also reserve judgment.  I am merely discussing the use of please and thank you, an issue raised by the NPR piece and which are as a result, now a topic of discussion among teachers.






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