How to Address the Use of “Retard” or “Gay” in the Classroom

Discourage these bullying words.

What do you do when your students regularly use inappropriate terms in the classroom, such as “retard” or “gay?” Recently, teacher Emily wrote into the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE regarding this issue. “Anyone else feel like you’re fighting a losing battle when it comes to teaching kids not to call each other ‘retard’ or ‘gay?’ How do you discourage this behavior?”

This is an ongoing issue, Emily—you’re not alone. Students in middle and high school often experiment with hateful words. Sometimes they are blind to the meaning and other times their eyes are very much open to what they are saying. Below are tips that teachers have shared to help combat intolerant words in the classroom.

  1. Show AND tell. “I tell them that it is never acceptable to say that about anyone. Or go with these posters.” —Rachel M.

  2. Nip it in the bud. “The first day of class I tell them they’re not allowed to call anyone by any name other than the one their mother gave them. Period.” —Christine L.

  3. Ask for alternatives. “I make them stop and choose three words they could have used instead. I pause the lesson mid-word and ask them for three alternatives before we can move on.” —Kyle A.

  4. Be blunt. “When my high school students say something is gay, I say, ‘No, it really doesn’t have anything to do with loving someone of the same gender.’ Usually I get ‘ewww’ in response. I think they get the message!” —Annette B.

  5. Have them explain the definition. “I ask them if they can give me the proper definition of the word and if they can’t, they should not be using a word that they do not know the meaning of.” —Sarah M.

  6. Real-world examples. “I make it more tangible to my 7th grade students by explaining how ‘gay’ and ‘retarded’ can affect others who may have gay or intellectually disabled friends or family members. I think giving them real-world, applicable examples helps them stop and think. A hard battle but a worthy one!” —Loren E.

  7. Discussion time. “Once a year we have a big class discussion and I tell them to think of a person that is disabled and if they chose to be that way. Then we talk about how it’s unacceptable to use those words as an insult. It’s typically pretty powerful because of the discussion it prompts.” —Krysten S.

  8. Keep it simple. “I always tell them, ‘You never know who may actually identify as gay at your age, and you’re making them feel bad by using that as an insult.'” —Laura N.

  9. History lesson. “I humanize it. Explain some of the consequences and history behind the words and what they really mean.” —Je H.

Do you have a suggestion to add? We’d love to read it in the comments below.