Don’t Use Don’t: How a Two-Letter Word Can Transform the Way You Teach

dont use dont

It’s the first day of your junior year. Your excitement is overwhelming. You speed out the door, down the hall, and into the band room ready to see your friends whom you have such a special bond with. Band camp and summer rehearsals were fun, exciting, and challenging. Unlike in the other classes where you are just beginning the learning process, the sense of accomplishment is in the air. The bell rings, your beloved director steps in front to welcome everyone, and continues with “let’s cover the rules of the band room. First, DON’T….” 

What comes next does not matter. You check out as a list of things not to do fills the air. At this stage in life, you are exploring your sense of self, your social and esteem needs, and your ability to think through abstract situations.You think, “Here it comes… another adult telling me what NOT to do!” This does not change your opinion of band, your friends, or even the director. They are doing what must be done when introducing people into a new situation. While you accept this with understanding and respect, the voice exploring self esteem says “you are being talked down to like a child. Again.” So, you check out and from that point forward, you and others inadvertently defy the rules and get the quick snap “Don’t!” 

This is what we put our students through each year. 

During the summer of 2019, I was listening to Dr. Matthew Arau deliver his Upbeat! Leadership training for a group of high school students. Suddenly, an idea hit me. As students were working in groups to formulate mission statements (which, by the way, I strongly encourage everyone to create a mission statement), I noticed how they reflected what they wanted to DO. Immediately, 

I challenged myself. Don’t use don’t. Soon, as we came back to a large group circled on the floor, I began consciously explaining what we will do as opposed to what we will not do. The results were incredible as all of them stayed actively engaged. We all felt a higher sense of positivity and we carried that into the school year. 

The following suggestions can put you on your way to a more positive rehearsal environment.

  • Record Yourself. Count how many times you use a “don’t” statement. “Don’t” statements are any type of instruction which emphasize negative behavior. (no, stop, quit, etc) 
  • Establish Procedures. Instead of classroom rules, create a set of procedures. Procedures are like an instruction booklet for a Lego set. They are clear in explaining what you should do along with the order of events. 
  • Create a “Do” list. Here is an example.
    •  When you enter the class, be sure you discard your gum before we begin. (Don’t chew gum in class!)
    • Play on only your instrument (“Don’t touch the percussion”)
    • Be sure to take all your belongings with you (Don’t leave anything behind) o Please lock your locker (don’t leave your locker unlocked)

Even musically, we consistently use “don’t” instructions. 

    • Don’t breathe on the bar lines. 
    • Don’t sit with your feet crossed. 
    • Don’t come in early. 
    • Don’t be the last one playing on a release. 
    • Don’t play that short.
    • Don’t bury your eyes in the music… Look at me. 
    • Don’t crescendo too early. 

All of these have alternatives that reinforce the desired behavior: 

    • Play as if there are no bar lines 
    • When sitting tall, be sure your toes and heals are flat on the floor. 
    • Breathe together, play together! 
    • Watch for the release! 
    • Put more length on that note. 
    • Position your music so you can see me and your music 
    • Hold off on that crescendo until the last moment! 

“Do” list instructions welcome students into the process as opposed to shunning them for a behavior. Students can translate “do” instructions into other situations “more easily”. Most importantly, using “Do” statements avoids the sense of disrespect or the feeling of being talked down to. When focus is put on the action or behavior someone should not do, the mind will continue to focus its attention on the undesired act. By asking someone not to imagine a tree in their mind, most likely they will still picture a tree in their mind. By telling a student “don’t talk” the word “talk” continues to resonate in the mind. The same is true with behaviors and actions that are positive. By using language that is positive, we can keep minds on the desired behaviors. 

Keeping the “Do” list fresh in mind is simple. Often I say, “Be sure what you are doing is on the DO list!” After doing this for just a short time, I noticed less need to draw attention to undesired behaviors, and students were adhering to the “Do” list on their own with little guidance. The reinforcement of positive behaviors changed the culture in rehearsal. I was reminded of this when a student walked into rehearsal and asked, “What do we get to do today?” 

Such a simple flip of mindset can make a long-lasting positive impact for you as it did for me. I felt my stress level decrease as a result of using positive statements more often. Experiencing a stronger sense of positivity in the classroom carried over into other aspects of my life since I was no longer carrying the weight of frustration from constantly using negative instructions. 

Teachers say we leave work at the door, but we all know how sometimes the little annoyances from the day can linger. Time with friends, colleagues, and (most importantly) family are no longer affected by a negative thought from earlier in the day. Simply using the magic two-letter word “Do” instead of the four-letter “Don’t” transformed my personal mindset and the culture of my rehearsal to an environment of positivity. I challenge you to do the same!

Mark Stice

Mark Stice is the Director of Bands at Okemos High School in Okemos, Michigan. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University, where he studied Clarinet under Bradley Wong, and a master’s degree from VanderCook College of Music. Mr. Stice is an active adjudicator for Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association (MSBOA) and for the Michigan Competing Band Association (MCBA). A member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity for Men, Stice served as Province Governor for Michigan and Northern Ohio. Stice is also a member of MSBOA and ASBDA. In 2017, Stice was named MSBOA Teacher of the Year. In his spare time, Mr. Stice owns and operates Work of Art Custom Batons, LLC. Most of all, he enjoys spending time with his wife Amy and their daughters Olivia and Isabelle.

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