Quick – think of the most disruptive phrase a teenager could yell across a classroom. What did you come up with? Was it “bless you”? Because that’s the phrase that got high school student Kendra Turner suspended last week. According to her teacher, this little two-word benediction is a classroom disruption … because of course, nothing says “I don’t want distractions in my classroom” more clearly than kicking a student out of class for expressing a common polite sentiment.
“Bless you” is a small part of a list of no-no words in this classroom, as captured by a student’s smartphone picture. The list also includes “stupid”, “dumb”, and “boring”; along with harmless items like “hang out”, “my bad”, “I don’t know”, and the catch-all “other peer expressions”:
As a former teacher myself, I think it’s reasonable to have rules in place to keep students from throwing words like “stupid” around at each other – name-calling and fighting can quickly turn into a disaster of a distraction. But trying to keep students from using “peer expressions” to talk like teenagers is a pretty big distraction all on its own – how are students supposed to keep their minds on spelling or science when they’re worried about being punished for minor infractions such as slipping a “like” or a “totally radical” into conversation? (That’s how kids talk these days, right?)
And telling the students that they can’t bless each other’s sneezes because you don’t want “godly talk” in your classroom is a great way to put your control of the classroom permanently off the rails. I can tell from the diagrams at the edges of the smartphone shot of the forbidden word list that this is a science teacher’s classroom, so let me say from experience: long before you open your mouth about evolution or how closely your DNA resembles that of a banana, students and parents alike are going to be gunning for ways to prove that you’re a godless, soulless demon who wants to replace all the dead Presidents on our currency with pictures of Charles Darwin flipping the bird. As it happens, all these things are true of me, but the other true thing about me is that I really, really wanted to teach my kids to love and understand science. And about the worst way to do that is to tell them the mere thought of religion is forbidden in my classroom. If teaching science distraction-free is really your goal in life, don’t start by forcing your views on students and setting yourself up as the enemy of all things religious.
From the sound of the story, the student in question may have yelled her blessing across the room to a sneezing friend. Yes, I suppose that is a bit distracting. But you know what would have been a lot less distracting? A classroom where dropping one of the most innocuous two-word phrases in the English language hasn’t been stricken from the vocabulary.