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Magic Words

Posted by on in Student Engagement
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Words have power. If one can wield the right ones skillfully he can exert influence over others. He can motivate and engage them. Words are so powerful they can bring into being dreams and halt, even destroy, lives. If you’ve been a teacher you have witnessed their might. Even if you have not realized it you have seen it. Classroom. Hallways. Gym. Wherever.

Whether they are words a teacher speaks to a student, one pupil to another, or an angry parent to her child, their potential to create and destroy is undeniable. “Words can’t hurt me” the saying goes, but it’s words that hurt the most. Kids especially care about what others say to them and about them, so teachers must not use words lightly. And, as teachers, you and I must pay attention, be careful, and use the right ones.

Use the good words. Wield the magic in them. Create.

What are magic words? These are words that help influence, motivate, and engage students. But this classroom magic only happens if you build relationships - strong and positive connections. Cold and impersonal business-like approach stifles magic. To awaken it, you must really care and your students have to trust you. Luckily, the first word gets you on the right path.



Chris, Kailey, Drake, Emily, Isaiah, Ebony…. Students’ names - say them early, say them often.

I remember an “old dog” teacher asking me, a few years ago, and about a month into the new school year, if I know all my students’ names yet. “Yes” I replied with a puzzled look on my face. “It usually takes me about 2 weeks. Don’t you?” His answer was of course a “no.”

Wow. Few words convey respect and show recognition as much as remembering a person’s name and using it. Conversely, if you want your students to feel unimportant and as if you do not care about them, all you have to do is NOT LEARN THEIR NAMES. I wonder how long it took, let’s call him Marty, to learn all his students’ names that year. I also wonder how many “Marty’s” still exist in public education. Hopefully, they’re a dying breed…. I feel two weeks may be too long, and a month plus?!?!   

Learning your students’ names is crucial in establishing respectful, caring, and trusting relationships and engaging them in meaningful learning.

3 Tips For Using Students’ Names:

  1. Stand by your door as the students are coming in EVERY DAY, put a big smile on your face, and greet as many as possible by name. Watch the magic happen in their faces. If you miss a few today; there’s always tomorrow….
  2. Use your students’ names to grab their attention and focus. If the class is noisy at the beginning wrapping up conversations, you can get upset and yell…. Or, you can look at Josephine, smile, and ask how her day is going. Then look at Max and ask him how his lunch was today. Do it so that the rest of class is in on it. Some kids might offer their opinions too. Give them a voice. You are not sacrificing a few minutes of learning. You are building relationships. Be warm. Use names. Witness magic.
  3. Use your students’ names right before a request during class. If three kids are talking, you can say “stop talking”, and that might work. But next time try calmly saying: “Alyx, Kelvin, Noa - I need your attention,” and, if you really know them, and they really know you, magic happens.


Yes communicates positivity. Use yes and avoid using the word no as much as possible. I’m not saying you should say yes to everything. I’m asking that you consider student requests carefully and always strive to look at the world through students’ eyes, meet them where they are at, not where you think they should be at, and find common ground where there wasn’t room for it before.

Elicit yeses as often as possible to turn the “positivity” and “possibility” switches on in your students’ minds. You can be more successful at influencing students’ proactive decision-making if you get them to say yes several times before you get to the actual request. Instead of asking or telling a student to fix something (behavior, approach, assignment), ask him if it can be fixed. Instead of offering help right away, ask him if he knows that you want to help all your students be successful. Then, ask him if he knows that you or someone else can help. Sometimes, a student doesn’t realize that he’s not alone, because he feels all alone. Let him know.


Help causes students to feel important and needed. Devote time and energy to making sure that all of your students know they are capable and their help is valued by you. Don’t be shy to ask for help. It is human nature to be helpful and giving, but you must commit to asking for help. “Going it alone” is a 20th century adage, and this is the new millennium, so ask for help. When you do that, you not only receive value. You in fact add value to your students. You are the TEACHER and you ask for help. When you ask for help you openly proclaim that you are not all powerful. And then, your power to motivate, affect, and captivate grows. And that is magic.


If induces people to think more hypothetically, thus more creatively, and that is why it is used to write hypotheses in experiments. In a way, school, work, life are one big experiment, because outcomes are not predetermined. It is true that our students have to play the cards they’re dealt, but if teachers open their kids’ eyes to the possibilities by using the right words, some might even hit the royal flush.

If combats reverse psychology. The interesting thing is that if you just advise your students, they’re more likely to do the opposite to show free will. Research proves that people are more likely to take your advice if you give it to them using an if statement as opposed to just telling them. Thus, instead of encouraging your students to study by saying: “Review the material to get ready for the test,” consider saying: “If you review for the test, you will do better.”


Because works magic, because we are curious beings who want to know how the world around them works. Do not be offended when a student asks you: “Why do I have to know it?” or “When am I ever gonna use it?” There are two reasons for this. One, she probably really wants to know and is not attacking you, even if she does not know it yet and the question feels like an attack. Two, you have the opportunity to give her the because, which is the essence of teaching.

So, give your students the reasons for why they are learning what you are helping them learn, and it will engage them. Better yet, get students to look for their own because and it will motivate them. Do a class project that allows them to use their creativity to find out more about what they’re learning for themselves. It’s worth digging deep for the cool factor here. Ask the Google gods. They will show you the way.

WORD #6 (& 7?)

Thank You is magical. People are insecure. Students want approval and they want to feel valued. They are more motivated to keep up the good work when it is appreciated by the teacher. They don’t have to do it, they choose to do it or not do it. Influence them to choose correctly by thanking them for doing the right thing, no matter how small. It will make THEM feel good. It will make YOU feel good.

Thank You is the ultimate positive reinforcement. If a student screws up, give him a chance to correct course and thank him for it, because it will make him feel he did right by you and by himself. It will fill him with hope. It will help him realize that he is valuable and respected. When students feel appreciated and proud of their accomplishments they're more likely to repeat positive behaviors in the future. Say thank you often and accompany it with a genuine smile to convey positivity and the feeling of “all is well.”

Now close your eyes and imagine it all…. Magic, isn’t it?

Do you use magic words that work and could be added to this list? I'd love to find out what they are in the comments below. Thank you for taking the time to read. Please help me spread the magic words by sharing this post, because they really work. If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for my NEWSLETTER to receive more articles, infographics, and poems on education.

Remember: You have the power to create magic and change the world. Use it often.

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Oskar is a Science, Engineering, and Learning How to Learn teacher and an author of the Crush School Book Series.

His professional interests are brain-based teaching and learning, flexible seating (#StarbucksMyRoom founder), social-emotional learning, social justice, and using technology to enhance learning.

He is also a fan of the Jedi order (and uses DA FORCE frequently), ninjas, and the superhero in all of us. He is on a Quest to Change the World because he can. We all can.

  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Saturday, 27 February 2016

    So true Oskar. We must always be very careful with our words because they have so much power. We have to be the model for our students. Additionally, we can't expect them to be perfect with theirs'. They are still learning to filter and we must be forgiving when they slip up. But never does that give us the right to retaliate. Great reminder and great list!

  • Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy
    Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy Saturday, 27 February 2016

    Right on Jon. Nobody is perfect. We all slip up, but if our good deeds/words greatly outweigh the hurtful ones, we'll be okay. Thank you.

  • Guest
    M K Elliott Tuesday, 01 March 2016

    How I learn my students names:
    Day 1:I say my name is Dr Elliott (see it on the board), but you may call me "DrE"...
    Now how shall I call you?
    Please take a sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper fold it 3, and write (large, pl) your name on it ( as you wish me to call you), then set it front of you!... Thank You!

    I have the 25-30 names memorized ( and ID'd to that student ) in 3-4 sessions!!!

  • Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy
    Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy Thursday, 03 March 2016

    Great strategy. Students know right away you want to know WHO they are :) I will try it, as learning 150-180 names at the beginning of the school year is tough!

  • Guest
    Tahir Javed Tuesday, 01 March 2016

    Wonderful! Calling your students by their names - in a clear, correct, and caring manner - is among the most neglected of magic words. But, hopefully we all understand, it's not just the words but the whole package - actions, body language, voice intonation, etc. - that helps create the desired effect.

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