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Dealing with Foul Language in School

Jordan Catapano

I have the pleasure of teaching lots and lots of extremely nice students. In my classroom they are smart, respectful, and mature. In some ways, I like being around them more than I like being around adults. Then, out of nowhere, when I’m walking down the hallway, I hear, “What the F---!” or “You’re full of S---!” and I turn to see one of my dear, beloved gems speaking these obscenities.

More commonly I overhear other students whom I don’t know uttering this foul language in school. What do I do? What can we, as teachers, do to curb this distasteful language habit?

For starters, there should be some policy in your school about what language is acceptable and what language is not. While many specific rules exist relating to bullying and disrespectful language, districts do not often have spelled out specifics related to foul language and obscenities. One of the things you should make sure you understand is what exactly your administration’s stance on foul language in school is. To what extent is it expected of you to reprimand students, and how much support would you receive were you to initiate discipline?

Beyond the standards laid out by school policy, consider what standards you personally demand from the students in your classroom. You must ensure that you have clear classroom rules and consequences related to language. If you do hear students using obscenities, a clear and reasonable system of discipline needs to be enforced. The system of discipline should be a lot like how you approach any unacceptable behavior:

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  • Set language expectations early on in the year.
  • Warn students the first time you do hear them saying anything inappropriate.
  • Deliver a consequence immediately after they utter foul language after they’ve been warned.
  • Follow up with them after their consequence to reinforce your expectations.
  • Give sterner consequences and further follow up should they continue to break rules.

That might be good enough for your classroom, but what should we do in the hallways when students we don’t even know use this objectionable language?

Our options are admittedly fewer here, considering that if we’re in the hallways, that usually means that we’re on our way somewhere and have little time to address a language issue. That’s why many teachers admit that they ignore foul language, pretending that they didn’t hear it and move on. This, you may imagine, is certainly no way to curb the trend. Students may end up feeling encouraged to speak in such ways if they notice that teachers do not correct them.

Swearing is hardly something administrators want students brought down to the office for, and rarely a strong enough offense that warrants detentions or other formal consequences.

Teachers’ options are limited, but perhaps we don’t need many options at all. The best thing a teacher can do is approach the swearing student and state, with firmness and respect, that those words are not allowed to be used in school.

Sure, the student might say “OK” and then ignore your instructions, but you are playing your part in reinforcing the high standard of language that an academic institution insists upon. If you encounter the student in the future using the same language, perhaps sterner consequences could be considered; but the first and most powerful thing a teacher can do is simply remind students of the standard they are expected to adhere to. When teachers speak up, those students become more conscious of their own behavior.

If one teacher stops and says something to a student in the classroom or the hallway, then that one teacher has played their part toward better serving their school community in limiting poor language used. However, think about what your school would be like if every adult prowling the halls – from teachers to administrators to janitors to hall monitors – were to take a stand against swearing. Perhaps the most powerful way to curb the negative trends of student language is to create a culture of positive language usage. When students see that all the adults stand as a united front in setting a high standard, then this will undoubtedly greatly diminish the frequency of those unwelcome cusswords.

What rules and behaviors has your school implemented to impact the frequency of swearing? Has anything worked? Do you feel like you’re fighting a lonely, uphill battle?

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com