Change One Word

Changing One Word Can Make a Huge Difference

Have you ever had one of those backhanded compliments? Like, “Wow! You actually smell good today!” Yeah, me too. And yet, too many times I see educators giving backhanded compliments to their students without even realizing it.

“You did a great job on that writing assignment, but you need to work more on your spelling.”

“You got 99% of those questions right, but you need to do the last one over.”

“You got ready for dismissal quickly, but you are still too noisy.”

What “But” Really Means

Do you notice what each of those sentences has in common? It’s that nasty little word “but.” My 5th grade teacher taught me that whenever someone uses a sentence with the word “but” in it, you can ignore whatever came before the “but” and just pay attention to the rest of the sentence, because that’s what the speaker really means.  And in truth, that’s exactly what happens with our students. Many times, they give much more weight to the criticism than they do to the praise.

As educators, we make statements like these because we want to soften bad news or criticism, or we want to let our students know how they can continue to make progress. Unfortunately, using sentences containing “but” doesn’t do what we want, and may actually feel manipulative and dishonest to our students, which will cause them to resist us.

A Simple Fix

So what can we do instead? I suggest a simple word substitution. Any time you want to use the word “but,” substitute “next.”

“You did a great job on that writing assignment. Next, let’s work on some of those spelling words.”

“You got 99% of those questions right. Great job! Next, I’d like you to work on that last one again, and see if you can get it right, too.”

“You got ready for dismissal quickly. Thank you. Next, I’d like you to wait quietly.”

Words are important, and sometimes small changes make a big difference. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.

Now go create a great day for yourself and your students!

Katrina Ayres, Positive Teaching Strategies

Additional Awesome Teacher Nation Resources


  • Create a Great Day for Yourself and Your Students
  • 5-Minute Classroom Management Hints
  • The Take-Charge Teacher
  • All The Ways I Screwed Up My First Year of Teaching
  • The Classroom Teacher’s Coloring Book
  • The Classroom Teacher’s Coloring Book, Volume 2

VideosAwesome Teacher Nation TV videos, including:

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  • Saving Time on Paperwork and Grading
  • 7 Strategies to Deal With the Pencil Sharpener
  • What’s the BEST Classroom Management Strategy?

Online Courses

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  • Making Money as an In-Demand Substitute Teacher
  • A Day in the Life of a Substitute Teacher
  • The Substitute Teacher’s Troubleshooting Guide

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