Teacher's Desk: What Val Taught Me

I miss Val. Val was an ornery girl when I first met her. I mistook her for a he because of her gender-bending style. But she kept me on my toes, and she grew into a wonderful student by the time she graduated last year. Her attendance was nearly perfect, her skill levels rose and I had to move her out of remedial classes. She consistently made honor roll, reached her required benchmarks and credits to graduate, and became a school leader. Most important, Val taught me it was all right to tell my students I love them. At the end of the day I taught a math class that she attended. Students tend to be highly distractible the last period of the day and mathematics takes a lot of focus. My class was well-behaved one day as I modeled problem solving. Val passed me a note that said, “I love you, but this is so boring.” She spelled every word correctly, too! After that day, I used her spontaneous, “I love you,” to my students. With my classroom management style of “no nonsense,” this was a perfect companion.

After working at a large, impersonal Denver high school, being at our little school and hearing “I love you” float through the halls instead of profanities during passing period was true joy. When many of my at-risk students hear “I love you,” from a friend or teacher that may very well be the only “I love you,” they hear for a month or more. Val spread joy into many of our lives and truly added value to our school culture.

It was easy to add something to our school culture as the rules were already in place on the use of profanity in our building. If a student uses profanity, a profanity “report” is issued for the student to hand copy and present to the offended staff. If the report, which discusses the history of public utterances of profanity, is not returned to the offended staff, the student will not earn credit nor receive a passing grade for that six-week period. Unfortunately, many students do not even realize that taking the lord’s name in vain or using damn or hell is considered cussing. For many students, a worn out hand does the trick and students truly learn time and place.

I am including this profanity report with this article (see full text below) so that other educators can use it as well.

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator teaching remedial classes at Colorado High School Charter, an alternative school. She holds a MA in administration and policy from the University of Colorado at Denver and is a former candidate for the Colorado State Board of Education.


On Profanity



Some of the best words in any language are taboo. No other words possess such power, such potential to strike ear drums like mallets. In English, our forbidden words are usually the profane, dirty, and rude ones. Yet these words are heard more and more often in more and more circumstances. Some people report that the dirtiest mouths belong to the likes of pirates and Marines, but a few footsteps into a high school reveals hearty competition.

Lately I have been rankled by not only how frequently students swear, but by how casually they do so. These words, whether F’s or –its, are usually used with the same spirit and weight as the words good and hello. This trend will bring undesired consequences for, paradoxically, the more easily these words are used, the less useful they are. Of course, some of the greatest books, plays, movies, and songs are peppered with profanities. One enterprising scholar once drained the volatile plays of avid Marmet of their F words and left them 30% lighter in length and 100% weaker in impact. Marmet, a master of dialogue, may be the Shakespeare of the F word; his characters use it, his plays demand it, and his audiences are richer for it.

But profanity must be used with skill and care. Like clichés and guitar solos, if cuss words are overused, they lose their gusto. Look at how television has changed in just the past few years. NYPD Blue adopted a few formerly taboo words and now sends the ripping over the airwaves each week. Instead of shocking us with its brazenness, however, the show has simply neutered a few more words that now are considered banalities.

This condition does not speak only to epithets. Consider the word awesome. Once it was used only when speaking of miracles, of genuine awe-inspiring acts of the divine – a sea parted, a leper cured. Now it describes the flavor of a piece of bubble gum. The same fate may be in line for profanity unless we keep these words restricted in certain arenas e.g., a classroom, their potency will fade until they in fact have no more force than the word doorknob.

Hence, Mr. Enrici’s Rule of the Tongue: You may not use profanity in the classroom, on your papers, or in your stories. Yes, I know these words have meaning. I know they are valuable. Sometimes they are the best and only words to use in art and in life. But that is precisely why I forbid them here. By keeping profanity taboo, we preserve its power, its integrity---and live to cuss another day.