They Don’t Teach This Stuff In Teacher School

A couple weeks ago I shared one of my great secrets to teaching. One of those things they didn’t teach me in teacher school. Today, out of the goodness of my heart, I’d like to share another. Please don’t underestimate the value of this gesture! Some people go into a lot of debt to study the art and the science of teaching. But here I am, just giving away my secrets like they’re AOL CDs in the 90s. (If I make a reference like that in the classroom, it gets me blank stares, so you’re going to have to humor me.)

I used to struggle a little with how to handle swearing in the classroom. Obviously it’s important to establish a professional atmosphere where the kids learn to express themselves appropriately. At the same time, I don’t feel like it’s usually an offense worth making into too big a deal. It’s a tough balance. Also, I don’t feel like all swears are created equal. Different words have different intensity, and different people would rank and categorize swear words differently. And there’s a difference between a minor swear slipping out of your mouth when you’re frustrated or hit your funny bone, and directly cussing somebody out. But middle school kids are a fairness police force to be reckoned with, and just try explaining the ambiguity and nuance to them, when they’re incensed over “this kid got a detention, but that one two months ago didn’t!”

The struggle was real when one particular student had a strong swearing habit. He wasn’t intentionally being defiant, and he wasn’t generally expressing any strong emotion when he swore. That was just how he talked. Each word was usually followed by a cringing, “Oh! Sorry!!” That class was a pretty tight group; most of us had been together for a couple years by then. So we eventually started joking about how we wished we had a nickel for every swear….

Then I did what any reasonable person would do, and I got a class swear jar. Here, I’ll show you a picture.

swear jar
Ta-da! Another secret to teaching revealed.

You see it there, right? Resting on the table? That’s my invisible swear jar. And any time I hear a student swear, they have to put an invisible coin in the invisible swear jar.

Yes, I’m serious.

It’s the greatest thing. And my kids are the greatest people. They go along with this shenanigan wholeheartedly.

When a student mutters “%$@#,” I stop what I’m doing, and mime lifting the jar off a nearby table. (If I pick it up from a different surface than where I last left it, the kids call me out on it!) Sometimes I complain about how it’s getting heavy. Then I hold it in front of the offender, and wait for them to make their contribution. The kid generally makes a show of reluctantly reaching into their pocket and fishing around, lots of dramatic sighs, and finally throwing an invisible coin in. Sometimes they claim to be short, and ask a neighbor if they can borrow an invisible coin. A few big spenders offer an invisible dollar.

When the kids ask what I’m going to spend the invisible coins on, I assure them there’s a plan. “Invisible computers. We can always use more technology in the classroom.”

But the greatest part is that nobody has ever refused to go along with this entire charade. (I just jinxed it by saying that on the internet.) An invisible coin always makes its way into the jar. Sometimes I’m busy and ask someone else to fetch the swear jar; they do. I might pass it off to another student and ask them to carry it back to the table; they do.

My favorite was the time a kid brushed up against the counter, then jumped back and admitted that she had just knocked the swear jar on the floor. “Then you’re not leaving this room until every coin is picked up. They’re everywhere!” I said in the exact same tone of voice I would have used for a visible mess on my floor. “I’ll help!” another kid offered. Soon, half the class was busily gathering stray invisible coins and returning them to the invisible jar. “You missed one, right there, next to your shoe,” I’d direct.

In the middle of this, a couple kids came in from the hallway to meet their friend. I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me. But the look on their faces was priceless as they watched us all acting out this scene with completely straight faces. It was like we all could see something they couldn’t….. We did all exchange secret smiles after we finally agreed that every coin had been returned to the jar.

Our school’s drama teacher is pretty fantastic. But, I don’t know… I’m not sure even he could get an entire class to improv a scene with the level of buy-in that we’ve achieved in ELD.

I can’t prove it with data, but I actually do believe it reduces the amount of swearing in my class too. They really try to avoid having to donate invisible coins to the jar. For most minor swearing offenses, it’s just enough accountability without requiring some big punishment.

(In between the nonsense, learning really does happen in my class! I swear it does.)

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