Teacher to Learner

by | 04.25.17

I’ve been teaching long enough to watch the ebb and flow of slang words. Some, like a flash of lightning on a summer night, flood every small space in the world, command the attention of every living thing, hold their power for half of one breath, and are gone forever (like YOLO). Others, like herpes, arrive without fanfare, but once introduced, cannot be completely removed (like petty). There is one piece of slang with a particularly special place in my heart. The first time I heard it, I was giving what has become a yearly September speech.

The year before my first year of teaching, my dad died of cancer after a struggle that started in my senior year of high school. The anniversary of his death always falls in the second or third week of school, and though it has been almost nine years now, I can’t seem to get through that day without some significantly deep quiet, a far shorter fuse, and at least three times the normal amount of awkward side hugs of the male teacher. To be fair to my students as best as I can, I give a little speech from the front of the room on or just before that day on why their delightfully grumpy teacher may be acting like an obnoxiously grumpy teacher.

“Oh, you’re in your feelings.” The voice came from the back of the room and was much more a diagnosis than a question.

“I’m what?”

One of my favorite things about slang words is that, among the people who use them, they seem so obvious so as never to be offered with an explanation or definition. In this case, none was needed. I was in fact totally in my feelings. This phrase is used by students who are somehow emotional or vulnerable. Sometimes, it is a student who recently broke up with their significant other (or they were “talking” to someone and found out that person was “talking” to two other people at the same time, talking being a good example of a word offered without definition and whose precise definition in this context I hope I never, ever learn).

Sometimes, rather helpfully, a student will come to me before class and explain, “I’m just in my feelings right now,” and I know to take it easy on them that day, maybe give them some space to work alone, or maybe offer an awkward side hug (I’m routinely told by students they are only awkward because I call them “awkward side hugs,” which is just the way I want them).

That conversation is a good example of why words are hugely important in interactions with kids. Both phrases, in my feelings and awkward side hugs, carry cultural importance in my room. Students understand that I am eager to understand the language of their friends, and so they will accept my own, often imagined, phrases in return.

This doesn’t mean that we excuse students from using the academic language in academic papers they will need to use in college to write more academic papers (so they can eventually stop writing academic papers), but like most every other part of teaching, we can either wait (and wait, and wait, and fail and wait) for students to come to us, or we can meet them where they are.

As an English teacher and general nerd about words, I encourage a study of dialects in my room. By exploring the way people actually talk to each other, I can give students an understanding of the wide spectrum of dialects contained in a language. In many ways, english is less intimidating than English. When a teacher uses the phrase proper English with students, that teacher is calling all other dialects of english (which will often include the dialect of english that the student speaks at home and with the people they love) “improper.” For students who may already struggle to feel a part of school culture, the assumption that their english is not the right english may just be one anti-invitation too many.

But when students are given a chance to study, present, and celebrate the words they say, you give them a tremendous opportunity to share their cultures. We spent three straight days once on the history and use of the word finna, a word that numerous White students swore they had never heard before even though it was said in front of them many times a day. We ended up referring back to finna (like, I’m finna go to the store, derived from the southern fixin’ to, with roots in Creole and a whole bunch of other interesting stuff) all year long in just about every unit, as a cultural and racial marker, as evidence of the fact that culture is hard to see, and as something that was generally good for a laugh whenever I tried to use it in a sentence out loud (I’m so White I nearly sprain my ankle trying to say finna).

This doesn’t mean you need to adopt the slang words of the students. In fact, don’t do that. Please don’t do that. There is space between judging and diminishing the language of your students and pretending like you’re super down because you use it.

Talking about language in this way is actually a great way to share culture with kids. When you do, you will likely find that what different kids and families define as offensive or rude language can vary greatly. For example, when my mom called my name across the house (“Tom!”), I would answer “What?” When I answered that way, my mom would generally tell me what she wanted. But for some of my students, answering “What?” to a parent is roughly equal to saying, “I disrespect you greatly. You should end me.” In my house, we could swear, but we couldn’t tell each other to “shut up,” which is probably why I talk so much.

Understanding the cultural roots of language is important to understanding what your kids are saying, or why they are reacting so strongly to something you just said. In a staff meeting the other day, I heard a teacher decry the “unnatural” language that students were using. I guess I should say that it was a White teacher who was talking about kids of color, but guess what? It kind of always is when shit like that gets said. Culture can be dangerous, in language, behavior, in expectations, because it’s so ingrained that it feels natural. Learning to appreciate differences in language and how it can be perceived can help you talk to your kids better, and hopefully can help you avoid nearly getting fired like me.

In my second year of teaching, I was helping a small group working on a presentation. I wish I could remember what they were really working on. I wish I could remember what unit it was in, or even the time of year. I have no idea. I have no idea who any but two of the group members were. I will never forget those two girls. The two girls were being jerks. I’m pretty sure they were being jerks. In the moment, at the time, I was 100 percent sure they were being awful people, but so many years later and tempered by their firm, angry belief that they were not being jerks, I question my own presumptions of the situation.

The girls were, I’m pretty sure, teasing another girl. The girl was talking about eating disorders, and the girls made a joke, I’m pretty sure they made a joke, about the girl having an eating disorder. I reacted poorly. I jumped immediately to anger, felt like I needed to shut this conversation down as soon as possible. I said, I know for sure that I said, “If you’re going to act like idiots, you can get out of my room.”

So they left. They walked right to the principal’s office. They had the principal call their parents and tell their parents that their teacher had just called them idiots. Which I didn’t, but I kind of did, and, man, it was not long before the phone rang and I was being called out of my room. A sub was on the way, I was told, for as long as it took.

Over the next couple of days, we had a few meetings, the principal and I. Our final meeting included the students and the mothers of the two students. I explained that I was sure, pretty sure at least, they had made a joke about eating disorders. I explained and explained that I did not call the girls idiots but simply presented them a choice that if they were going to act like idiots, I wanted them to leave. “So you called my daughter an idiot.” “No, like I just said, I told her IF she was acting like an idiot . . .” “So you called my daughter an idiot.” “But see, they were making fun of this other girl . . .”

They were all very kind, really, dealing with just how dimwitted I was being.

No one in the room, myself included, thought there was truly a large difference between calling someone an idiot and suggesting that someone may be acting like an idiot. Either way, the word idiot had been thrown at a kid. It took me too many meetings to understand, admit, and repeat three times, “It is never okay for a teacher to even suggest that a student is an idiot.” It was the strongest truth in the room, and without putting that fact on the table, nothing else could be resolved.

The moms, both Black women, explained to me (and then explained again slowly and using small words when I didn’t get it the first time—because, let’s be honest, only one person in the room was acting like an idiot, and it was the only teacher there) that as Black women, the level of their intelligence was assaulted constantly in school, in media, and in society. Calling, suggesting, or even pointing in the direction of anything like the word idiot directly reinforced a very real expectation they too often saw from teachers.

When you make kids mad, or when you make their parents mad enough to drive over to school and talk to you, listen. Listen, listen, listen. Other teachers will circle you, most likely, and tell you all the reasons you are right and the parents are wrong, because it sucks to have people be mad at you, and teachers are used to working hard to make bad feelings go away. Comfort is not a bad thing, but do not let yourself be comforted away from serious reflection. Listen and listen, because there are words that you may use that have a power you do not understand.

About the Author

Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher is the author of "It Won't Be Easy" and the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Tom can be found on Twitter at @MrTomRad.

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