My first five years of teaching high school I continued to fight a losing battle. I just couldn’t keep my defenses operating against the attacks from every direction. F-bombs, A-bombs, B-bombs, and S-bombs bombarded me in the classroom, hallways, meetings, and even during parent phone calls and conferences.
Four-Letter Words & Classroom Management
Was it my moral and ethical obligation to continue to wage war against profanity? Occasionally a reading or film I required my students to read included a curse word here or there. I hear it on television and in music. I never deduct credit if a student uses a four-letter word in his/her personal or creative writing. And let’s not even discuss what comes out of my mouth when I’m navigating the city streets… during rush hour.
While not every teacher, in every school, deals with the language mêlée the way I do on the South and West sides of Chicago, I know I’m not the only one who struggles with appropriate classroom language.
Therefore, I’ve developed a sort of peace treaty to enlist when engaged in a war of words. I ask myself seven questions, challenging my own knowledge of students, when deciding whether to immediately address language infractions and take up class time doing so.
7 Questions to Consider Before Addressing Student Profanity
1. What is the student’s home life like?
If Mom or Dad’s every other word is deserving of a bleep, I have my work cut out for me. I’m up against 16 or 17 or 18 years of bleeps, and a call home will more likely have a negative impact on the student’s class performance. See # 7 before taking action.
2. Is this student having a “bad day”?
If the word or words are out of character, I’m not going to make the kid’s day worse. I’d much rather chat after class and demonstrate my concern and/or offer assistance.
3. How much of the precious and little educational time we have will be lost by addressing the issue?
Basically, how will this student react to being addressed? Will this escalate to consume half the class period? Is it worth it for the other 27 students to watch such drama? Will my “teacher-look” convey the appropriate amount of displeasure? Can I see the student after class to discuss it?
4. In what context was the word or words used?
For example, a student demonstrates understanding of a text and connection with a work of literature:
“Damn, I finally f-ing got it!” Are you really going to mess with that moment of sheer magnitude? The student is excited about understanding what you’re trying to teach. What message does it send to focus your attention and effort on an “excited utterance”?
I find drawing attention to the slip up more damaging than good. A) The student is less likely to try to continue to build on his/her success, and B) Instead of sharing what he/she learned with the class, reprimanding him/her kills the opportunity for other students to, possibly, “get it” too. Addressing the profanity is a double loss for the teacher.
5. Was the language directed at anyone or harmful to anyone (other than the fact we all had to hear it)?
When inappropriate language negatively impacts the learning environment, it needs to be addressed. Students must know this type of language will not be tolerated.
No one learns when they’re not comfortable or don’t feel safe in the classroom. It is worth class time to address, but it must be done in a manner to maintain respect and dignity for everyone involved.
Demanding an apology or berating the offender won’t serve as solutions, and do no favors for the targeted student.. Take it to the hall and try to uncover the reason before further action.
6. Why am I considering fighting it?
It’s just not worth it if I’m only addressing it to save face.
If my only reason for addressing the language is because I need to slap a Hello Kitty Band-Aid over my wounded pride, that’s just silly. I’m an adult. I know from my education and experience why students lash out. I now have the power to control whether students will learn something about my English lesson today or about how immature adults can be too.
Hmmm… I think I’ll see this student after class and ask what I’ve done to deserve such a tongue-lashing. I’ll demonstrate respect and a willingness to apologize if I’ve “deserved” it. Chances are, the student will apologize without my having to demand one once they realize I wasn’t his/her intended target. And who knows, maybe I did do something to deserve it. Either way, I’ve given the student a choice, which is what students need to make effective decisions.
7. Did the student appear apologetic (slap hand to the mouth, say “oops!” or “sorry!”, or other gesture/posture indicating friendly fire)?
In this case, a practiced teacher-glare should be sufficient.
Classroom Management, not Classroom Micromanagement
Many of my students are expected to fulfill adult roles at home. Some of these kids are responsible for their siblings, work to provide for their families, or have children of their own. Some of them are in foster care or live in group homes. While there may be appropriate language for the classroom context, we all make mistakes.
Sometimes there is really no better word to describe what life is really like than to drop a good ‘ol fashioned F-bomb. And who am I to be the Potty-Mouth Police?
As unpopular as it may sound, I get the need to vent-occasionally. I even found an interesting study from the school of psychology at Keele University in the UK, which found profanity actually helps to alleviate a little pain.
I will never say, “hey class, it’s okay to use inappropriate and offensive language,” but I’ve learned that adamantly refusing to allow any infraction of improper language wastes valuable class time. I’m also proud to say I’ve never dropped an F-bomb in my classroom.
As a personal decision, I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance rules. I cannot expect to teach the shades of gray in which we all reside if I enforce rules in black and white. I have only one objective, or shall I say, mission: to teach. And that’s the battle I choose to fight.
So yes, it is my moral and ethical obligation to teach appropriate language for appropriate contexts, and I’ll lead by example. However, mistakes are one of the most powerful learning tools we have, and I’m not one to kick ’em while they’re down.