Is The F-Word Ever OK In The Classroom?

Oct 29, 2017

Warning: This post contains language that some may find offensive.

The scene: A teacher training at a new high school in Washington, D.C. The topic on the table? Students and the language they use:

"So this should be a place that I should be able to come and express my thoughts. I may be having a bad day. I may come in, and I'll be like, 'f***'."

That's Shatane Porter, a counselor at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. And yes, he is talking about the F-word. And whether it's OK for students to say it. In class. In front of their teacher.

"This may be actually a sign of respect and trust that I can cuss in your class and say to you: 'I'm having a bad day. F***.' "

Then, he makes a distinction:

"Not 'F*** you!' Just, 'F***.' "

Charles Curtis, the school psychologist, explains the difference:

"So: 'F*** this!' Moderate profanity. 'F*** you, bitch!' Targeted profanity. See what I'm saying?"

He is trying to explain that when a student blows up in class, teachers should ask themselves: What is the student trying to say? And why is he saying it?

It's all part of the "restorative justice" approach to discipline at Ron Brown, a school aimed at educating young men of color. And this back-and-forth comes from Episode 1 of our three-part series on NPR's Code Switch podcast: "Raising Kings."

Ron Brown high school is built entirely around this philosophy: Don't suspend students, don't send them home. Talk to them. Circle up. Try to figure out what's behind their behavior and help them work through it.

Even our own Cory Turner and Education Week's Kavitha Cardoza, who spent hundreds of hours in this school, found this tolerance for cursing a shock:

Kavitha: "I'm sure some of you out there — especially teachers — are probably saying right now: This is crazy!"

Cory: "When these young men get into the world, they can't curse out their boss. Or the police."

Kavitha: "And it's not fair to other students in class, who can't learn if their teacher's too busy dealing with a disruptive student."

In a fit of frustration one day, Travis Bouldin, a history teacher at Ron Brown, tells his students exactly the same thing:

"In the real world, people are not going to want to work with you if you're cursing at them nonstop. You cannot continue to speak to each other like you're nothing!"

But instead of suspending the students for their cursing, or kicking them out of class, here is what he does: He challenges the students to turn to a classmate, and pay him a compliment. He is turning cursing into compliments.

And at this school, it seems to work.

But hearing that got us wondering, and clearly some listeners as well: When, if ever, is this kind of language acceptable in school?

First, we reached out to an expert. Eric Shed is with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and directs its teacher fellows program. He has done a lot of work with high schools, including eight years as a social studies teacher.

He says the approach by Ron Brown toward these young men is unusual. "I think that's terrific that they have a school to express their emotions," he says. "It's showing a high level of empathy. ... I think it's an opportunity for students to express themselves."

But in general, he says, this kind of behavior is not OK. The teacher-student relationship should be professional. "In general, I don't think there should be any type of cursing," Shed says. "There are other ways to build relationships with students."

So: Teachers, educators, parents ... What do you think?

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