Classroom Euphemisms: Teaching Civility as a Habit

Like so many other teachers, I constantly hear curse words and insults flung around in my middle school classroom by students who are testing their boundaries and acting on hormones. This has escalated, I think, since 2015 and 2016 when even the country’s leaders were using rude nicknames, cutting one another off, refusing to listen, and even using bathroom “humor” right in front of the kids. Growing up in a world of technology that allows anonymity and encourages anyone to say whatever they want whenever they want has given the students I teach the license to bring that language into the classroom.

Think Before You Speak and Be Kind (Classroom where I student taught, 2017)

I try to curb this as best I can. At the beginning of the year I established that “stupid” and “shut up” were off limits. At another’s teacher recommendation, I told the kids they could replace those words with “silly” and “please be quiet.” It took the entire first quarter of absolute insistence for the kids to get used to the switch. But now that they have gotten used to using the euphemisms, I can hear frustrated mutterings of “please be quiet” and “you’re so silly” under their breaths. When another student slips up, there is a chorus of “oooooo – you mean ‘please be quiet!'”

My students are not bad kids by any stretch of the imagination, really they’re very sweet. But they speak without thinking, to the point where they do not even remember saying words like “stupid,” “shut up,” or “Jesus Christ.” I’ll call them out in the hallway or the classroom, and they are absolutely adamant that they did not say it. And I’m starting to believe their sincerity — they are so used to speaking without thinking that they cannot even remember it.

So why is using euphemisms important? Obviously to the kids, they still mean “shut up” when they say “please be quiet” and “stupid” when they say “silly.” What I am hoping to build within them is that internal filter that they can carry into adulthood. I want them to get into the habit now of monitoring their thoughts and choosing to maintain civility instead of letting their temper get the better of them. They have to actively choose to say “please be quiet” — it does not come naturally to them. Thinking about it drops the tone — I never hear “Please be quiet!” shouted across my room the way “Shut up!” is screamed.

My students are surrounded by social media, video games, and celebrities who are rude, unthinking, and uncivil. The country is being run by the most famously uncivil person, giving them every indication that such words are allowed. But with constant attention, I hope that I can get them into the habit of checking in with their thoughts, choosing civility, and being better examples than the adults they see.

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