I recently had to be out of school for several days for health reasons. My students were left in capable hands with a substitute teacher during their study of poetry and short stories.  We had already read several poems in the days before I was out and my students were learning to understand and analyze poetry better with each class period. 

I left detailed notes and plans for my substitute, as well as assignments that would load for them each morning on our online networking application.  I assured my students that after a few days, I would be an email away if they had questions. I didn’t get any emails. I assume I left very clear assignments and instructions. 

I returned to the usual complaints that the substitute didn’t do things exactly the way I did and reminded the students that flexibility and adaptability were life skills they’d been given the opportunity to practice. Then came this zinger: 

“Are you going to go over all of the stuff we did while the substitute was here because I didn’t understand any of it?” 

I had to compose myself, silently reminding myself of professional conduct, before I could answer the question.   The girl asking the question is quite bright; in fact, she has an A average in my class.   I mustered a smile and said, “I bet that is not true.  You have an A in my class. I find it hard to believe you didn’t understand ANY of what the substitute teacher said and I need to repeat ALL of it. If I quizzed you, I bet you’d remember at least some of it.”    

She smiled knowing it was true. She is very capable, one of those students whose reading ability and work ethic would enable her to thrive in most any educational environment regardless of the quality of the teaching.   Then I launched into a lesson on being impeccable with our words. I couldn’t help myself.  The soapbox was there and I stepped up on it. 

One of the few education courses I found really useful in my secondary education curriculum was a counseling class in which we had to role play and practice dialoging with another person.  Among the things I remember from that class thirty years ago was being taught not to use words like ANY, ALL NEVER and NONE when one has to confront another.   Those words become inflammatory.    Rarely can we really say someone NEVER does something or ALWAYS acts a certain way.  Those words simply are not true when it comes to human beings.  Working with teenagers everyday reminds me constantly  that we are complex mixtures of good and bad, capable of our best but sometimes at our worst.  

That kid that drives me crazy most days makes me laugh occasionally or tugs at my heart’s strings.  The student who usually gets it right in class has an off day, shows a flash of anger, or disappoints himself or me with the work we are doing.  It just isn’t an ALL or NEVER world. 

So I took my chance to teach my kids:  Stop yourself when you find those words coming out of your mouth.  Is it really true?  Be fair; be honest, be impeccable with your word.