Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Real Talk With Rachel: Who Gets to Talk Back?

by Rachel Kurzius

The last Real Talk With Rachel included a letter from a young man who worried his girlfriend’s temper tantrums might be too much for him to handle, though he loved her nonetheless. She seemed unwilling to reconsider her outbursts. I told him that no significant other was perfect, and only he knew whether this behavior was a “deal breaker,” in common relationship parlance.

One reader thought that I was off the mark. “What the woman did/does is a form of verbal abuse -- its aim is to bully and create fear. Abuse -- spiritual, emotional or physical is a deal breaker. The woman is a bully. This is an inexperienced guy trying to do the right thing, and the right thing in the face of abuse is to deal break.”

I wrote back to explain why I thought the term abuse was a bit harsh. "The way I saw it, the girlfriend had these outbursts but they weren't necessarily directed towards the letter-writer. I saw the actions as a consequence of her immaturity as opposed to purposeful abuse." Essentially, while the girlfriend may have an anger management problem, it didn’t necessarily damn the whole relationship.

The reader responded,“The object to which the energy is directed is not the point. Sometimes it is as painful to witness someone being mistreated as it is to actually be mistreated. Doesn't matter if someone vomits and it is not at you. It still gets on you and it still stinks.”

I loved that pithy vomit line, though I maintain that only the people in the relationship can determine whether the stink is unbearable.

Thanks for such an engaging conversation, and for your continued readership. I always love the opportunity to talk about these quandaries with you once the column is out.


Dear Rachel,

I work at a nonprofit that provides arts education workshops for under-privileged children in a low-income neighborhood. The main goal of the organization is to prepare young people for a successful college experience. Since I started working here, I've noticed many of my co-workers spelling or pronouncing simple words wrong -- for example, saying "freshmens" instead of "freshmen" or saying "that's mines" instead of "that's mine" or even pronouncing "ask" like "axe".

If one of the major goals is to improve students' writing and speaking abilities so that they don't feel ill-equipped for college discussions and college essays, what should I do about my colleagues' negative role modeling of college-level English language?

To complicate things further, many of my students and coworkers come from the same socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, whereas I'm a white upper-middle-class woman. In a sense, I feel like I would be imposing my culture on this community by asking them to uphold our organization's principle of modeling college behaviors. But on the flip side, if I don't do that, I feel like we're not doing our job. HELP!

Say As I Say

Dear Say As I Say,

I admire your thoughtfulness in asking this question. You clearly care about your students, both respecting them in the short-term and worrying about whether this respect will hurt them in the long-term. Sometimes, when these short- and long-term goals conflict with one another, you need to figure out which of them is more important.

First off, you should know that the negative role modeling of language will indeed hurt your students when they head off to college. Read this excerpt from an editorial written by a former DC public charter school student named Darryl Robinson. He entered his freshman year at Georgetown excited by the prospect of college:

“After arriving on campus before the school year, with a full scholarship, I quickly felt unprepared and outmatched — and it’s taken an entire year of playing catch-up in the classroom to feel like I belong. I know that ultimately I’m responsible for my education, but I can’t help blaming the schools and teachers I had in my early years for my struggles today.”

While some of Robinson’s issues -- which can be read in full here: -- stem from teachers who weren't up to the task, he found that his earlier schooling had under-prepared him for collegiate academics.

Your organization has the explicit goal of preparing students for college, from the academic jargon they will encounter to the increased emphasis on independent study and original ideas. Your responsibility should be clear. You need to make sure that you are prepping them for these new college behaviors.

I reject your notion that you’re a cultural imperialist if you emphasize your organization’s principles. After all, your coworkers signed on to the same job you did. Your concern seems to stem more from your own hang-ups about not being the same as your students and coworkers, and whether that somehow makes you a less legitimate role model or colleague in their eyes.

So now that we’ve established you shouldn’t feel bad, what should you actually do? I assume that you’re already correcting students on a case-by-case basis, and that you’re more concerned by your coworkers not doing the same. However, telling a coworker that “Actually, it’s freshmen, not freshmens,” is not going to help you towards your end goal and might create some resentment.

Instead, find some coworkers who share your concerns and your vision. It would be helpful, both for your conscience and your cause, if your team included people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. That way you’ll get a variety of perspectives about ways to move forward. You could talk to higher-ups about helping prepare the next faculty training session, for instance.

One thing to keep in mind is that you ultimately can’t control your coworkers. All of you have different teaching styles and your students’ outcomes will vary based on these distinctions. You just need to be the best teacher you can be, and hope that your positive modeling will rub off.


Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You can write to Rachel via or at advice @

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