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Careless whisper

Recently, I overheard an exchange between two seasoned teachers. "How are your classes going?" one asked. "Oh, same old stuff," the other replied, loudly and with a hint of disgust.

I cringed. Not because of what she had said (who among us has not had moments of exasperation, discouragement or irritation?) but because she had said it within earshot of two students.

Even the best of us has bad days. But although this teacher may have had legitimate and understandable reasons for expressing her frustration to a colleague, doing it so indiscreetly sent out the wrong message. What if the listening students had been hers? How would her tone have affected them? What thoughts might they have brought to the next class?

If such a response suggested to the listeners that the teacher had little respect for her subject, regard for the classroom experience or investment in those who participated, then why should those things matter to the students either? A teacher ought to be mindful of the power of the spoken word to uplift or to sting.

In my decades as a faculty member, I have tried to live by my father's admonition: "Behave on campus as if you're always being watched and listened to - because you are."

He was a university professor and he instilled in me the importance of being self-aware, because anything I said might be overheard by an unintended audience.

My father believed, as do I, that the campus and the classroom should remain a bastion against the kind of reckless talk that is symptomatic of a decline in not only civility but also sensitivity to the nuances of language and its impact on others.

If, for example, he heard complaints about the ineptitude and apathy of some students or the crush of teaching loads, then as an administrator he addressed and worked through such important issues behind closed doors.

His discretion was noticed and imitated, and over time led to an expectation of trust. "The greatest compliment others can pay me," he said, "is to take me into their confidence." And they did, because he was aware of his audience.

It helps to remind ourselves that every year there are hundreds of aspiring teachers in the job market who would love to be given a shot at the "same old stuff".

As teachers we are among the privileged few; we have worked hard to earn the right to lead a class, but we must remember that our leadership extends beyond the four walls of the classroom. In all their encounters with us, our students need to see evidence of our passion and regard for written and spoken language, and our full intellectual and emotional engagement with the subjects we teach.

They need to be assured that we will never betray the sanctity of the classroom or the implicit trust that is so essential to their success.

And they need to know that we are grateful to be in our exalted positions, as we work so assiduously to help them value learning. We teach our students how to behave as much as we teach them how to know - by our examples of speech and conduct.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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