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A Substitute Talks About Abusive Language

A substitute educator shares insights and tools for managing verbal rudeness - from the mildly impolite to the dangerously insulting.

Found in: Classroom Management

As a full-time substitute teacher in a large urban school district, Doug Provencio has learned to be verbally agile when confronted with inappropriate language from a student. In a low-key manner, Provencio identifies the intent behind the words and defuses the situation, often with his own brand of dry humor. And in the process, says Provencio, he tries to teach his students something, too.

The Oakland, California, educator shares insights and tools for managing verbal rudeness - from the mildly impolite to the dangerously insulting.


Why do you think students swear so much today?

Swearing is part of our society. There's more of it today. For students it's often conversational.

How do you handle swearing in your classroom?

First, you need to keep things in perspective. I consider whether they are swearing casually or hostilely. If they're swearing casually, I say "Please don't do that." And usually they'll say, "Oops, sorry."

If they are speaking with hostility, or if the cursing is persistent, there's probably some underlying problem they need to deal with. You can:

  • Talk with them
  • Send them out of the room
  • Call their parents

Second, I identify the behavior as I see it. Maybe it's a "capping" contest (trading insults in a playful manner). So if a student swears at me, I might say, "You need to be concentrating on your school work instead of getting into a capping contest."

And sometimes I use humor. I had one sophomore who was cursing like a sailor and decided to call her parents. Looking at the roll sheet, I noticed she has the same birthday as I do. So I said to her, "How do you think that makes me feel, that someone with my birthday is talking that way?" Humor helped defuse the situation.

Name Calling

How do you handle name-calling?

Sometimes kids will call me a name that's tame (like "cousin") or that has a violent connotation (like "blood")

If it's a tame name, I might say, "Don't call me cousin, call me Mr. Cousin."

If a student is calling me a more negative word, I might say something like, "That sounds violent. This is what I prefer you to call me."

The N-word is very tricky. Even "friendly" uses have an edge. One time I was writing up a referral, and the student said, "Don't do that, N-." My response was, "That term offends me personally. I'm sure it offends other people in the classroom, too. Some words have a lot of history to them and you can't escape that history."  Every moment and exchange is teachable.

If a student calls another student "faggot," I tell him or her it's wrong to use that word, to do any name calling. I say, "Think about your intention. You don't know who's gay or who may have family members who are gay. You could be insulting and hurting a number of people in the room."

At the other end of the spectrum, younger students (I teach K-12) will often say, "Why aren't you a real teacher?" And I say, "What do you think I'm doing now? You're real students and I'm a real teacher. Now let's do some real work."


How do you handle a student who is threatening you or others?

If the student is serious, you need to report it. You send them out.

But, first you need to determine how serious the threat is. Is the student joking, trying to intimidate you, or just blowing off steam?

I say something like, "You can get into serious trouble for making threats, even if you're playing. Be more careful and avoid that kind of trouble."

How did you learn these techniques for handling verbal abuse?

I learned a lot by talking to more experienced teachers. And I learned from experience that being calm helps when talking about bad behavior. I even learned from a fifth grade class that told me they were unhappy with my teaching because I wasn't following the chart in their classroom with the "characteristics of a good teacher." Ever since, I've made more use of Item #9: "A good teacher has a sense of humor."

Doug Provencio has substitute-taught in Oakland, California, in a large urban school district. Provencio is a past chairperson of NEA’s Substitute Teachers Caucus and the author of Standing in Your Shoes: A Checklist for Classroom and Substitute Teachers (NEA Professional Library, 2003).


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