* Profanity in the Classroom

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Anyone who has been on a middle or high school campus lately knows that profanity in the classroom is rampant. In this post I will give you some suggestions for how to handle it in your classroom. 

Reasons Students Use Profanity in the Classroom

Before we get into the strategies, let’s talk about some of the reasons that students use profanity in the classroom. 

First, for some students, they have grown up hearing profanity on a regular basis in their household and for them it’s just how things are. To them, profanity is not a big deal. Many of their parents use profanity and their parents are probably people they look up to and want to emulate. For this reason, I never condemn someone who uses profanity as being “less than” I simply talk about its appropriateness in certain situations. 

Profanity is in music, video games, and movies. It is everywhere. Much more so today than when I was growing up. It is part of our students’ culture. Sometimes what we consider to be a curse word, students don’t. So, again, instead of calling it a “bad word”, I speak to my students about the appropriateness of words and changing from an informal to a formal register when speaking in the classroom. 

Second, sometimes profanity is a way for students to seem tougher and more aggressive than they actually are. Middle schools and high schools can be fertile grounds for bullies. One way that students can often forestall being bullied by others is by a certain amount of posturing. This posturing involves profanity. Their thinking may be, “If I talk in a certain way, then maybe others will not perceive me as weak and I won’t be bullied or picked on.” And there may be some merit in their thinking. 

Back in the day, students could be suspended for using expletives in the classroom but those days are long gone. So how can we handle profanity in the classroom?

Suggestion #1 Show students the reason behind the rule. 

I spend a great deal of time talking to my students about the purpose of school. That purpose being to prepare them for being employed citizens who can obtain and keep a job. We talk about all different types of jobs and what the expectations are for those jobs.

They understand that they will have to be conscious of their language in front of customers, patients, bosses, clients, etc. A possible consequence of profanity as an adult might be losing a much needed job. Learning to “filter” is an important job skill to have. 

Suggestion #2 Create a “professional” environment in your classroom. 

From day 1 of the new school year, I emphasize to my students that when they walk through that magical classroom door that expectations placed upon them change. I explain that the classroom is a professional environment and as such profanity is not appropriate. 

Part of creating that professional environment means that I have to hold myself to the same standard that I am expecting of them. I don’t use profanity. I don’t use it in my personal life and I don’t use it in the classroom…ever. 

Sometimes, students will say to me, “Well Mr. X, the teacher down the hall, uses this curse word all the time.” When that happens, I gently remind students that they have to be aware that different teachers, just like different bosses or managers they may have one day, may have different expectations of them. They need to be able to adjust. 

Suggestion #3 Don’t ignore profanity in the classroom. 

When I have observed in other teachers’ classrooms, I am often amazed at the amount of profanity that I am hearing and that other teachers just pretend like they don’t hear it. Sometimes, teachers feel overwhelmed and it simply isn’t a battle that they want to pick. 

While I understand that, those teachers also need to realize that they are creating an environment where students feel it is okay to speak in an aggressive way. So, whatever you do, don’t ignore the profanity. 

Once you have established the rule and explained the reason behind it, inevitably some student is going to test you. So, be ready. Hopefully, you have established your progressive discipline plan in your classroom and you can begin to follow the steps you have outlined. If you aren’t sure what a progressive discipline plan  is you can read this article or watch this video

Sometimes when you reprimand a student for profanity they will say to you, “It just slipped out.” I always remind my students that they have control over their bodies and their mouth. Filtering their thoughts and words is an important skill to have.

Often, they may say, “Sorry, my bad.” I usually just remind them that I’ll know they are truly sorry because their behavior will change. If their behavior doesn’t change then their apology is meaningless. 

Suggestion #4 Know the line. 

There is a difference, in my humble opinion, between a student who is cursing in conversation with another student and a student who is directing profanity at me, the authority figure in the room. If the profanity is directed at me, I am going to take that as much more serious. I will assume that there is a bigger underlying issue that needs to be addressed immediately. 

When I am walking across campus, I am going to hear profanity as students are casually talking to one another. Normally, as long as students are not in direct conversation with me, I don’t address it. If I stopped to correct every student who was swearing on my way to the restroom or office, I would never make it where I was going. You have to know where your line and your administration’s line is. 

Finally, let me just say that even after more than 30 years in the classroom, profanity is still an issue that I have to deal with frequently. It’s going to happen. I simply hope these suggestions will help you to address profanity in your classroom and to come up with a plan to deal with it.  Remember, you can’t battle an entire culture that is evolving daily. However, you can teach young men and women how to navigate the world in a way that they present their best selves to future employers.

If you found this post helpful, or you have further suggestions for handling profanity in the classroom, please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

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