Teachers Must Use More Cuss-Words in Classby Marc Severson on May. 25, 2013, under Education
I am here to help empower educators and I want to tell them right now, “Use my cuss words!”
There were two cuss words in my classroom and I was known to have used both of them, though admittedly I employed one much more that the other. They were the ‘S” words — you know them — ‘stupid’ and ‘shut-up’.
I sometimes had an occasion while in the throes of severe educational frustration to ask this question of a student, “Are you stupid?” Now, gentle reader, before you run to mommy to tell on me, you must know I employed the requisite query only with these caveats: 1) I knew the child in question was not stupid and 2) I was not angry.
Most teachers are consummate performers, they can display apparent passions implying raw emotions that will make believers out of all present while still holding onto that scrap of professional control and rationality that implies a deeper motive to their actions.
Upon hearing my questions my target would usually answer exactly as I expected them to, with the single word, “No.” That would allow me to respond with the phrase I intended to use from the beginning, “Then please don’t act as if you are stupid.”
Sometimes I would hear from a parent later. They would say something along the lines of, “Did you call my child, stupid?” Outraged, I would reply, “Your child? Why he’s a bright young boy. I would never call any child stupid, but I did ask him why he was acting that way?” Then, having defused the situation I would have the opportunity to delineate the behavior that had first elicited my original inquiry.
My all-time favorite though was for an outraged student to answer me with, “You called me stupid, I’m going to tell my Mom.”
I would then have occasion to drop this bomb on them: “You tell your Mom, you tell your Dad, tell your grandma and grandpa and all your aunts and uncles, you tell everyone and you bring them here to talk to me, I want them to know how you’re behaving. Better yet I have your number on my cell phone, let me call them right now.”
It was not an idle threat. In my career I almost never threatened. I would reach in my pocket and take out my phone, click on my contacts to the child’s name and show them the number. Usually at that moment they had an epiphany and decided that I wasn’t bluffing. However, if not, they found out I wasn’t bluffing and the call would be made. As soon as contact was achieved I would say, “Hello this is Mr. Severson and _____ needs to speak with you.” and I handed them the phone.
One of the keys to good teaching is never to say you will do something that you actually won’t do.
As I said the other cuss word I used was “shut-up”. I can probably count the number of times I have used that in my thirty-plus years on the fingers of one hand. Almost invariably upon me uttering these dreadful syllables one of my other students, not the one I had addressed it to, would sheepishly raise their hand. I would call on them and they would say, “Mr. Severson you said a bad word, you told us that was a bad word.”
And then I would reply something along the lines of:
“You are right, thank you for pointing that out. I should not have said that, it was very rude of me and I apologize to you all. I am sorry you heard me say that. In my defense I had asked ____ to be quiet, to stop talking, to quit making noises and not to be continually interrupting people. But that is no excuse, I lost my cool and got angry and I did not handle it well.” Then I would look pointedly at my tormentor and say, “I’m sorry.”
Of course I hadn’t lost my cool, I had played a card. It was one I always kept up my sleeve against the need to use it and I did not use it often and never twice in the same year. But I had made my point: everyone has their limit and you are approaching mine. Sometimes you just have to believe what I say.
That brings me to my last cuss-word, one I never used but that I often heard from students. It is actually a phrase, and I always referred to it as, “The most dangerous thing you can say in a classroom.” It would appear almost innocent at first but the ramifications are truly terrifying.
Imagine this scenario, I look at a student and ask, “What do you think you are doing?” They shrug. I continue, “Do you want me to help you?” Here is where the peril lies. They respond with the dangerous cuss-phrase, “I don’t care.” No worse answer is possible.
“You don’t care? You said, you don’t care? Do you know how dangerous that is? If you don’t care what you are doing or what happens to you then I get to decide. You have just given me permission to do whatever I want to you. That’s what happens when you say, ‘I don’t care.’”
I have to admit I got an almost sadistic joy from springing this little trap. It allowed me a lot of leeway in deciding what happened next. Normally I tried very hard to tailor consequences to situations logically but with “I don’t care” a whole world of possibilities opened up. My personal favorite was the: “Then you’ll have to hold my hand the rest of the day.” (remember I spent most of my career in primary classrooms) which meant they could only watch what everyone else was doing instead of participating. Usually then I would unleash some really fun learning activity that had a lot of hands-on to it like science or art (I viewed lesson plans as merely a guideline) and the poor miscreant attached to me would know true remorse. To be honest it was another technique I rarely had to use more than once in a year.
I remember one particular day when a student new to our class uttered the dangerous phrase “I don’t care.” in a room that had seen my response before and the whole class went, “OOOOHHH teacher he said ‘I don’t care’” They already knew what was coming next.