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Abusive Language: Is Anybody Listening?

Thoughts from a High School Science Teacher

Found in: Classroom Management

Many students today are not being corrected at home for their inappropriate language, says high school science teacher Terrance Klazer. In fact, the Bowie, Maryland teacher has a theory about young people's language in general. He thinks their choice of words, topics of conversation, and the volume at which they speak reflect their feeling that no one is listening to them.

Well, Klazer's listening. And he's letting students know what he thinks about what he's hearing. In this interview, he discusses his thoughts on swearing, name calling, and threatening.

Why are kids swearing so much today and how do you handle it?

They probably pick it up at home or their parents permit it. It seems to be a peer thing. I don't think they know it's wrong.

When I've heard kids swearing, I've told them: "I'm deeply offended that you are talking like that." And they'll say, "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I was talking to her." And I'll say, "You're talking to another human being, and talking that way is disrespectful." And they look at me as if to say, "You're lunching," meaning "you're crazy."

I haven't really had problems with swearing, but I have had students using inappropriate language. At a previous school, I offered a "lunch bunch" in my classroom—a quiet, safe environment where kids could eat their lunch and have a good time and not have to put up with a crowded cafeteria (and being cursed at and harassed).

And these kids used such language and told explicit stories about their lives—loud enough for me to hear. Several times, I would stop them and say, "Do you realize I can hear every word you’re saying?" And they would look at me and say, "Uh, yeah, and your point is?"

And I'd say, "Aren't you embarrassed about that?" And they would say, "Oh, okay. We should be embarrassed about that."

"Yes, you should be, those are personal things. You shouldn't be sharing those things with the world."

These kids want to be heard and they want to be heard by the people around them. They don't think people are listening to them. Which may be why they talk so loud and talk about things they think are cool and interesting to other people.

But nobody is correcting them. Nobody is calling them on it. No one is giving them an opinion as to why they shouldn't be using this kind of language.

How do you handle name calling?

When some of my African-American students were calling each other the N-word, I tried to diffuse the situation by telling them: "I am offended that you called me that." They looked at me like I was crazy and said, "I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to that person." And I said, "That's offensive to me. Many of my African-American friends have worked too long and hard to receive recognition and what you're doing and saying to this person I find distasteful."

These kids are not bad people. I think they just don't know that others are offended when they hear them talking this way.

How do you handle a student who is threatening you or another student?

Threatening language is different. You have to make an immediate assessment of the level of threat. If it seems serious, I call security.

If I know the kids well, I will mediate. Or, I'll find someone else who has the time to mediate. And one of us will sit down and explain to the kids that even if they were jesting, it's a loaded situation.

Threatening remarks can quickly escalate into a fight. Over the years, I've seen many such situations and it's been bad. I saw a girl threaten another girl and then pull a knife. I called security and they took the knife away. Although she was expelled, she was back in school within a month.

What have you learned about tense situations set off by students using inappropriate language?

You have to be careful not to engage the student who calls you names. One student called me m-f- and I responded to it. So, he made it a point to see me every day. It became a sport to him. Unfortunately, in that school system, administrators chose to turn a deaf ear to such language.

A distraction can sometimes diffuse a heated situation. One time, I was in the hallway when two students started shouting and threatening each other, getting ready to fight. I grabbed the nearby fire hose (the glass had long been broken) and handed it to one student and said, "Here, it's for you. You need to answer it." Both kids kind of freaked out and walked away.

The most important thing I've learned as a teacher is that relationships are important. When students get to know you and trust you, you can do all kinds of things with them. If you establish a positive relationship with them, students start working with you and use peer pressure to help you. Like, when students are loud, you just stop talking and the kids will start saying, "Come on. Please be quiet. We want to learn."

We're all in this together.

About the Author

Terrence Klazer teaches chemistry and biology at Bowie High School, an urban school in Prince George's County in Bowie, Maryland. He also serves on the Human Relations Committee for Maryland State Teachers Association and last year, one of the issues they worked on was harassment in the schools.

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