|If you've heard this before, you might be an 8th grade teacher.|
Here's the short version of what I say to 8th graders. In our classroom, we are here to learn. It is my top priority that you feel safe and welcome here. You do not have to believe all of the same things that I believe, and I can't control your behavior when I am not with you. But we will not use labels for groups of people as insults. Think about how many people are in this classroom and how many family members and friends we are connected to. What are the odds that no one in here has a gay relative, friend, or is gay themselves? Exactly. I respect your personal opinions on the subject, but we are not going to do or say anything in here that is going to detract from anyone else's learning, safety or comfort. You, no matter who you are, belong here. We are here to learn.
Obviously, you would adjust the language and content to the age level that you are teaching, but that's what I feel is appropriate for my students. Here's the tricky part. Some kids don't get it. What they take away from the discussion is that my teacher thinks it's bad to be gay, so that's why I shouldn't say it. They have a hard time understanding that the insult is given to the named group, not to whatever they think is "so gay" at the moment. If it takes them longer to catch on, be patient. It's also appropriate to ask, "What's a better word for what you are really trying to say?"
Someone will slip up in the first month of school and say it. This is not because they are trying to defy you. It's because they've said it for so long that it's become a habit. Address the issue, revisit your expectations and move on. If it happens again, it's time for a talk in the hall, so you can make sure that the child understands you and that you understand why the behavior is continuing. This will probably happen with one child per year, maybe. I've never had to put pen to paper and create a discipline referral for students using language related to denigrating someone else's sexuality for incidents that happen with my students in my classroom.
When you draw the line with 8th graders in a way that is rooted in fairness and compassion, they usually respond positively. Remember how insecure you were in 8th grade? What if you knew that your teacher was there to protect your heart whenever possible. What could you have accomplished with your writing, your art, your friendships? And what's better than being the kind of teacher who nurtures a sense of community and compassion at such an important stage in a child's development? When you stand up for kindness on behalf of children, there is nothing to debate.
Here's more on the topic.