Speak Up at School
In the Moment
1 Speaking from Authority
When you communicate from a position of authority, your words often carry more weight—and sometimes you cannot gauge whether the listener genuinely understands or simply is unwilling to talk back. If the response is silence, don’t assume that your message has sunk in. Watch closely to see if behaviors change, and be ready to speak up again—and again—if needed.
From a position of authority, your words also affect people within earshot. If a principal hears a student in the hallway using a casual sexist slur and she stops to tell the student that biased language is not tolerated at the school, others will hear an antibias message from the top. This can have a ripple effect—both to curb slurs and to empower others to speak out against them. Imagine that same principal delivering a message against slurs at a school-wide assembly. That’s another case in which speaking from authority can have a huge impact.
Perhaps more important, if someone in authority does not speak up, it empowers a different sort of behavior. That lack of action tells everyone within earshot that slurs are allowed in hallways, classrooms or the office.
A teacher from upstate New York describes the rural, largely white community in which she lives, where casual and not-so-casual bias sometimes is allowed to thrive. But it does not thrive in her classroom, where she has the authority to set the tone and speak out. She states it flatly, and takes responsibility for the work: “I am the only person who can stop the bigotry in my classroom.”
A teacher from another part of the country learned her lesson on this issue from moments when she did not speak up.
I often just did not pay attention to hurtful comments or bigoted behaviors. [Then] I began to make a personal connection to my own life and how bullying had impacted me as a youth. Bullying and bigoted behaviors have so many layers and are presented in so many ways. This is when I realized that I was contributing to the problem by not speaking up and speaking out.
Every week, she found herself in situations where she needed to speak up against comments that were intolerant. The result?
I discovered that the more I speak up, the more I hear [my students] speaking up, too. This is one of the ways we create that safe space around us, where our young people know that they are accepted, appreciated and heard.
An elementary school principal in the Pacific Northwest says that he routinely interrupts when he hears biased words being used—either with teachers or with students.
I step in. I say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’ The vast majority, with students, is kids using words they don’t really understand. They just know the word is negative, a put-down. So I make it public, but I don’t make it punitive. It’s a teachable moment, and I want everyone within earshot to know it’s not okay to speak that way here.
2 Speaking to a Peer
There is power in a peer relationship. When a friend or trusted colleague tells you something, you often hear it more clearly than if it comes from some other source. Peer relationships also are problematic. Explaining to another teacher why offensive language should be avoided might result in a reply along the lines of “You’re not my boss.”
So there are considerations to be made:
- How close are you to this peer? (Strong friendship, mild but positive acquaintance, nothing more than “hello” in the hallway?)
- What is the nature of past interactions? (Happy but shallow, feelings of real affinity, some tension over other issues?)
- How does this person best receive communication? (Written, verbal, with humor, in group settings, as a quiet aside?)
Weigh your response based on relevant factors. Some examples:
An early-childhood educator from Wisconsin had someone she considers a good friend speak excitedly about some bargains he had found at a neighborhood yard sale. She continues: He said quite conversationally that he had ‘Jewed down’ the owner. I asked what he meant and watched as his face went from puzzlement (at my ‘ignorance’) to embarrassment (he knows quite well that I’m Jewish). I let him flounder for a bit and then tossed him a lifeline—his promise not to use that phrase again, regardless of who is in the room.
A Georgia high school student describes himself as the only African American in his circle of friends.
They do not necessarily say mean-spirited things or bully me directly, but they always make a point to mention that I am the ‘token black.’ I usually laugh it off or ignore it, but recently it became too much. I was having a bad day, and I could not hold back my annoyed feelings any longer. I began to yell at them explaining how racist it was that they called me that … and how mean they were being. When I finally finished, they stared at me until one of the boys started laughing. They all laughed and made fun of me, and I realized that all I did was fuel their fire.
Looking back, the student says he would have changed his approach.
I would have confronted it much earlier, when I first realized that I had a problem with the way I was being treated. I should have pulled my friends aside or talked to them individually, explaining my issues with the situation—not with anger or revenge, but with calmness.
3 Speaking to Authority
Speaking up to an authority figure is tricky. It carries risk. Are you questioning your principal’s leadership skills? Or are you challenging a senior teacher in a way that might backfire? Will you face punitive reactions? Is the power relationship so imbalanced that you won’t be heard at all—or worse, will be mocked for being overly sensitive or “whiney”?
Ask yourself some questions:
- Should I write down my issue, present it in the form of a letter or memo? Would that avoid an initial face-to-face confrontation that could get ugly, allowing the person in authority to absorb the message before we speak about it?
- Should I seek an ally or allies?
- Am I jumping over a level of authority (going to the superintendent before speaking with the principal, for example), and will that lead to problems later?
In 2004, when Emma Fialka-Feldman was in high school, she wrote a letter to teachers and administrators at her school about the lack of response to the use of the word retard as a casual slur at her school. Emma’s older brother has developmental disabilities, and she was angered by the use of the word.
I wrote a letter to my teachers and administrators at the beginning of the school year, reminding them the power they have to teach their students not only about academics but also social values, such as respectful language. … I was nervous. I wondered that their response would be.
A few days after the letter arrived in all teachers’ mailboxes, Emma’s biology teacher stopped her in the hallway.
He said, ‘I know there have been times I haven’t said anything. I am sorry, and I plan on calling out more students now.’ I was speechless. My teacher was coming up to me to apologize; I thought students always did the apologies. … I am honored to have gone to a school district that could learn from its students.
Emma’s letter has been republished widely and included in at least one anthology. Here is a brief excerpt:
Changing the culture of any high school to promote values of respect and responsibility does not happen overnight. … It happens little by little. I can’t and will not tell every single person I hear use the r-word to stop saying it. I need your help. In the classroom, when a student uses the r-word, tell them to stop. By saying it in front of the classroom, the entire class knows that they can no longer use the word because you don’t tolerate it. When they eat in the cafeteria or walk down the hallways they will also learn that they can no longer say it on school property because every time they do, a teacher will tell them to stop … [and] they will bring what the teachers, staff and administrators taught them into the larger world.
A teacher in the Northeast related this story:
Two teenage girls, both pregnant, are walking down the hallway of their high school. A teacher passes, clicks his tongue and says, “I bet neither of you even knows who the baby daddy is,” and keeps walking by. The students say nothing.
What might they have said?
“It’s tough,” the teacher says. “Teachers have power, and students know that. They certainly could have said, ‘You can’t talk to us that way,’ but even that might be risky.”
The teacher relating the story suggested that the girls together might approach an administrator and describe what happened and ask what can be done. Or they could tell their parents, and the parents could contact an administrator. This work isn’t easy, and the power involved in some relationships makes it tough to find an effective avenue for change.
4 Speaking to a Parent or Visitor
When the person making a biased remark is a parent or a visitor to your school, ask yourself some questions. Do you have an ongoing relationship or is this person a one-time visitor? What kind of relationship does this person have with the school? (Someone with a history of antagonistic interactions with the school may require a different response than someone with positive or neutral relations, for example.)
The basic advice for speaking up to visitors is to be quick, calm, firm and straightforward. Whenever possible, tie the moment to classroom rules, school policy or some other principle.
If a father visiting on parents’ night casually makes a biased remark, a possible reply would be, “Oh, we don’t use that word in our classroom. Our classroom rules prohibit the use of hurtful words.” Don’t engage in a debate over whatever term was used, just refer again to the rules, if needed, and move on.
If you have a relationship, draw on that. (“Oh, Maria, I know you didn’t mean to be hurtful using that word, but we don’t say hurtful things in our classroom.”)
If it is someone with a history of offensive behavior or antagonistic relations, stay firm and straightforward, and move on to the content at hand. (“We don’t use that word in this classroom. Thank you. Now, we were discussing the art project planned for the spring …”)
An ELL/Spanish teacher in Illinois held a parents’ night. The father of one of her Spanish class students told her he insisted that his son take Spanish so he could “show those Spanish-speaking factory workers who’s boss.”
I have to say I was taken aback by the tone of the comment. [But] I am grateful this parent shared his opinion. I added additional parents’ nights to discuss the presence of immigrants in the United States and the challenges they face. As evidenced by the surveys, the meetings ended on a positive note. All participants indicated they had a better understanding of immigrants.