This Sucks

by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller


"I hate this. It sucks."
"Well, that sucks."
"This is boring. It sucks big-time." 

"This sucks" was a favorite phrase of Mary Traber's alternative high school students earlier this year. With emotionality and intensity they used the phrase to show their distain for assignments, classroom activities, or directions not to their liking.

While the students found "This sucks" to be a dramatic and articulate way to express their feelings, Mary Trabor did not. She found the wording distasteful, disrespectful, and inappropriate. So she set out to eliminate its use in her classroom.

As a veteran professional educator of over ten years, Mary knew that punishing those who used the phrase would not work. Writing students up, sending them to the office, or assigning them a detention would do little to alter their choice of language. Putting a student's name on the board, calling them out in front of the class, or bribing them with treats or bonus points were strategies she had previously found to be ineffective. Mary chose instead to take the teaching stance. She knew that if she wanted a behavior, she would have to teach a behavior. She set out to do just that.

Mary figured she could confront and stop the "This sucks" comment every time she heard it. And she also knew she would have to stop it endlessly unless she helped her high schoolers learn a replacement behavior—one that would satisfy their need to express distain for what was happening in their lives. Unless she gave her students something different to say, she realized they would return to the comfortable and habitual use of the phrase she strongly disliked.

"I know you like saying, 'This sucks,'" she informed them one morning. "It helps you express your frustration and opinion about what is currently happening. I, on the other hand, find it offensive and distasteful. It does not fit with my personal preference of showing disapproval. I want to honor your need to communicate to me what you think sucks. And I want you to honor my need to have that sentiment expressed in a way that is not offensive to me."

"From now on," she told her students, "when you think something sucks, tell me this way: 'This does not fit with my personal preference.'" She then wrote the new replacement phrase on the chalkboard. "When I hear, 'This does not fit with my personal preference,' I will know that you mean, 'This sucks.' You will be telling me what you think sucks in a new way, one that I can hear more easily and be in a better frame of mind to process."

"What do you think of this idea?" she asked.

"It doesn't fit with my personal preference," a student quipped. All the other students laughed. So did their teacher.

"Thank you, Ramone. I now know that you think the idea sucks and I was able to hear that with more receptive ears when you stated it in a way that fit with my personal preference."

"Let's practice," she suggested. "I'll make a statement, and if you think it sucks, say, 'This doesn't fit with my personal preference.'" She began with, "There will be an hour of homework tonight."

"This doesn't fit with my personal preference," most of her students responded in unison.

"Take out your math books. We're going to review yesterday's lesson."

"This doesn't fit with my personal preference."

"It's time for a quiz."

"This doesn't fit with my personal preference."

"No homework tonight."


"We're going to take turns reading aloud."

"This doesn't fit with my personal preference."

Following the experience of chanting in unison, Mary told her students that she would appreciate their cooperation in the future by informing her of what they thought sucks using the new language. Not all of her students remembered every time. In the heat of the moment, a few "This sucks" were uttered. Some students caught themselves and immediately followed "This sucks" with, "I mean, this doesn't fit with my personal preference."

Over time, "This sucks" ended as the predominant phrase used in her classroom to voice disapproval. Because of Mary's efforts to teach an appropriate replacement behavior, it was slowly replaced with a phrase that more closely fit her personal preference.

Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of The Teacher Talk Advantage: Five Voices of Effective Teaching. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for the newsletters or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: and


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