The Power of Words

That’s the Wrong Folder!

Billy had a look of bewilderment and panic in his eyes as he looked around the room. He had been startled by Mrs. H, his teacher, her voice filled with frustration and exasperation, when she said, “Billy, that’s the wrong folder!”

Billy was a quiet, rather shy 3rd grader who seemed to have one speed for everything – slow. He rarely was able to finish assigned work within the time frames given by his teacher, rarely returned his homework assignments on time (unless his LD-Resource teacher helped him), and his desk was the most unorganized collection of books, folders, papers, crayons, folders, and pencils one could imagine. He thought slowly, worked slowly, and moved slowly. Many days, he had to stay in from recess to get his work done. He missed a lot of recesses. Months of frustration had been building up for Billy’s teacher, despite that fact that he was a “special education” student and had an IEP. Billy rarely completed the same amount of work in class that almost everyone else in his room did, and it took a long time for him to find the right book, folder, or paper needed for each subject.

On this fateful day, Billy had been working feverishly on the math assignment so he could get all of the problems on the page done before Math was over and Social Studies started. He only had 3 to go when his teacher gave the class directions to put away their math and get out their Social Studies folders. He kept working, even though Mrs. H repeated that Social Studies was starting. All of his classmates had their Social Studies folders out . . . Billy nervously stuck with his math lesson . . . today he wasn’t going to miss recess!

You could see Mrs. H’s frustration mounting as she put the chalk down and turner toward Billy, seated 3 rows away. “Billy!”  He jumped in his seat, causing his pencil to scrawl across the last problem at the bottom of his math paper. He quickly wrote down an answer, opened his desk, stuffed the math paper into the tangled collection of things, and grabbed an orange folder. He didn’t notice that everyone else in the room had a blue folder on their desks.

Then it came . . . the words filled with exasperation . . .”Billy, that’s the wrong folder!!” Billy did his best to find the “right” folder, but it was close to hopeless considering the morass of his desk contents, plus he was still in panic mode after being startled and embarrassed. So, Mrs. H hurried over to Billy’s desk, rifled through its contents as she muttered in frustration, succeeded in finding the “right” folder, placed it on top of his desk, and resumed the lesson. Billy, still shaken, didn’t get much out of Social Studies that day . . . and yes, he had to stay in from recess so he could “catch up”.

Words are powerful. That day, Mrs. H’s words were powerful enough to place Billy in a state of panic and confusion, and he didn’t get much out of Social Studies as a result – an unfortunate circumstance for Billy and for his teacher.

Chick Moorman, a professional educator, author, & speaker reminds us to choose our words carefully. In this situation, “Billy, that’s the wrong folder!” is personal, pointed, critical, and points out a mistake in front of the whole class – embarrassing. Moorman would recommend different words: “Check to make sure you have your blue Social Studies on your desk.” The difference between Mrs. H’s words and Chick Moorman’s words is significant. Mrs. H’s words gave Billy no information to go on. The tone was harsh and emotional, and the message was “personalized”. Her words were “disabling”. Chick Moorman’s words are emotionally neutral, give specific information that Billy could use to correct his mistake, and are not “personalized” . . . they are enabling. Quite a difference.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” The words that we say and the actions we take come from the thoughts we choose. Since we have thousands of thoughts every day, we also have thousands of choices every day, and those thought choices result in what we say and do.

Note: Chick Moorman ( has written a number of thoughtful and practical books for educators and parents. He and his partner, Thomas Haller (, are nationally known key-note speakers and conduct seminars & workshops for teachers and parents.

© 2010  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved