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Nasty Backtalk

Upping the Ante

In our previous segment we became familiar with the various types of “whiny backtalk.” Familiarity reduces the element of surprise in backtalk and helps us remain calm.

But staying calm in the face of whiny backtalk is a piece of cake compared to staying calm in the face of nasty backtalk. If we can think of discipline management as a poker game in which the student raises the dealer (you) with increasing levels of provocation, then nasty backtalk is going “all in.” The student is risking it all for the sake of power and control.

Getting Personal

What separates nasty backtalk from whiny backtalk is not so much the words, but rather, the fact that it is personal. The backtalker is probing for a nerve ending.

Experienced teachers understand the following rule:

Never take anything a student says personally.

If you take what was said personally, you are very likely to be wounded and respond emotionally. If you do, the student has succeeded.

Common Types of Nasty Backtalk

Once again, we will become familiar with the more common forms of backtalk as a means of reducing the element of surprise and, with it, the tendency to have a fight-flight reflex. There are two major types of nasty backtalk: insult and profanity.


There are a limited number of topics that students can use for insults. The main ones are:

  • Dress

  • “Say, where did you get that tie, Mr. Jones? Goodwill?”

  • “Hey, Mr. Mickelson, is that the only sport coat you own?”

  • Grooming

  • “Hey, Mr. Gibson, you have hairs growing out of your nose. Did you know that?”

  • “Whoa, Mrs. Wilson! You have dark roots! I didn’t know you bleached your hair. Ha ha ha.”

  • Hygiene

  • “Hey, don’t get so close. You smell like garlic.”

  • “Hey, Mrs. Phillips, your breath is worse than my dog’s!”

Are you ready to ring the kid’s neck yet? That is the point, after all.

Take two relaxing breaths. When the sniggering dies down, the kid is still on the hook. If you are in your cortex, you can make a plan. Right now I am not so much concerned with your plan as I am with the fact that you are in your cortex.


There are a limited number of swear words that students can use in the classroom. Chances are, you are familiar with all of them. There are your everyday vulgarisms, and then there are your “biggies.”

Now, ask yourself, what is the real agenda underlying vulgarity? As always, it has to do with power. The question of power boils down to a question of control. Who controls the classroom? This in turn boils down to the question of who controls you.

Can a four-letter monosyllable control you and determine your emotions and your behavior? If so, then the student possesses a great deal of power packaged in the form of a single word.

If you give a “high roller” (remember Larry?) this much power, he will use it. And, if such power comes quickly and predictably, he will use it again and again.

Responding to Nasty Backtalk

To understand the management of backtalk, and especially nasty backtalk, you must conceptualize your response in terms of two time frames, short-term and long-term. As described in last month’s segment, the short-term time frame is very short: two or three seconds.

Short-Term Response

To review, the correct short-term response has to do with the fight-flight reflex. Take two relaxing breaths, remain quiet, and deliver some withering boredom.

If you are in your cortex, you can use good judgment and choose a long-term response that fits the situation. If, however, you are in your brainstem, judgment is out of the question. Consequently, if you succeed in the short-term, you will probably succeed in the long-term.

Your lack of an immediate response is very powerful body language. It tells the student, among other things, that you are no rookie. You have heard it all a thousand times.

When in doubt, do nothing.

If the student runs out of gas and takes refuge in getting back to work, count your blessings, and consider getting on with the lesson. You can always talk to the student after class.

Do not worry that students will think, “Mr. Jones didn’t do anything about Larry’s profanity.” Give them some credit for social intelligence. They just saw Larry try “the big one” and fail. They saw you handle it like an old pro. And they learned that profanity is useless in this classroom as a tool for getting the best of the teacher.

Long-Term Response

Your short-term response does not foreclose any management options. It simply gives you time to think while avoiding the Cardinal Error.

In the long-term, you can do whatever you think is appropriate. You know your options. If in your opinion the student should be sent to the office or suspended, then do it. Just do it calmly.

If you are calm, your actions come across with an air of cool professionalism. You are above the storm.

This calm helps students accept responsibility for their own actions. Of course, this is the last thing they want to do. They would love to have a nail upon which to hang responsibility so it is not their fault. If you are the least bit “out of line” by becoming upset, you have just provided that nail. However, it is hard for students to blame someone else when they are the only ones acting badly.

The Clinical Dimension

Imagine a situation in which a student (let’s call her Vanessa) says some ugly things in the middle of class, and you finesse the situation so that the student falls silent and returns to work. Imagine also that you keep the student after class for a talk. What do you say?

For starters, let’s consider the context. When Vanessa used insult or profanity, was she acting in a typical or an atypical fashion? Let’s imagine she acted atypically.

Vanessa is upset about something, but that something is probably not you since you have not seen her for the past 23 hours. Chances are, she is upset about something that happened outside of class.

I would certainly want to know what that something was before I went to “consequences.” Otherwise, I would run a very high risk of heaping one hurt on top of another.

A Therapeutic Conversation

When having a conversation with the provocative student after the others have left, you become a clinician. Being a clinician is straightforward in a simple situation like this.

People seek therapy for one reason; they are in pain. They seek one outcome: the alleviation of pain. These two simple realities give you your starting point for a conversation about the student’s inappropriate behavior in class.

“Vanessa, what you said in class today was not at all like you. Tell me, what is really going on?”

Take two relaxing breaths and thwart the desire to say anything else. This is called “wait time.”

You do not know what will happen next. You can open the door, but you cannot make Vanessa walk through it. She might say,

“Nothing! I just want to leave!”

But, before you go to “consequences,” play for time. Silence is truly golden since young people have a very low tolerance for it. If you wait calmly, the whole story will probably come spilling out. Do not be surprised if the lip starts to quiver. Have some tissues handy.

After Vanessa spills her story, you may want to give her a pass to the nurse’s office so that she can pull herself together before reporting to her next class. Make sure she knows that you will be available after school. Do not be surprised if she shows up.

A Different Relationship

Over the years, I have had more than a few trainees who, when faced with exactly this situation, had the presence of mind to “open the door.” One teacher spoke for them all when she said,

“I would be lying if I were to say that I was relaxed after what that student said to me in class. I kept her back as you suggested, but part of me just wanted to send her to the office. I forced myself to ask her what the ‘real’ problem was. I took some semi-relaxing breaths. Then, she began to spill the beans.

“I kept the next class in the hall for a minute while she pulled herself together. That was the turning point in our relationship. She has been a different child in my class from that day until now.”

Young people need adults to look up to. Sometimes, all they get from the adults at home is verbal and physical abuse. But their hunger for positive adult role models can be used for healing if you know how.

Vanessa was upset in class today, obviously enough. But, she was also instinctively testing you to see if you were as uncaring as other adults in her life. She probably expected the worst – an angry teacher and a trip to the office. It would not have surprised her.

What does surprise students in this situation is to find a teacher who says, “I can see that you are hurting. Tell me about it.” It catches them off guard. Sometimes their defenses crumble because they are so unaccustomed to anybody caring about whether or not they hurt.

Sometimes, healing is mediated by simply taking the time to ask and to listen. Without going that far out on a limb, you can answer the defining question in your relationship with the child, “Do you even care?”


Power is not the goal of Meaning Business. Power is a means to an end. It is simply a tool that can be used for good or ill.

The goal of Meaning Business is reconciliation. Our calmness and skill allow us to say “no” to backtalk while potentially strengthening the fabric of our relationship with the student rather than tearing it.

An interaction with another human being is more pregnant with possibilities the more emotionally intense it is. A student’s crisis in class, therefore, presents us with a rare opportunity. Depending upon our calmness and skill, we can often turn this crisis toward a constructive end.

In everyday child rearing, the heart-to-heart talks that are remembered usually come on the heels of a crisis of some kind – usually accompanied by tears. These heart-to-heart talks are some of the most precious moments between adult and child. They teach important lessons within a context that says that being “bad,” while it leads to real consequences, cannot threaten the bond of caring.

If we react from our brainstem, as the student’s parents might, we confirm the student’s worst expectations. But if we have the presence of mind to simply ask and listen, we can open the door to a different way of relating.

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