Kids are still learning things about the world and how things work. So, it's understandable if they say something a little silly. Teachers are trained to take these silly statements in stride and turn them into teachable moments. But sometimes, a kid says something more shocking than silly and it stops their teacher in their tracks. These teachers share the time their student said something so off the wall that it shocked them into silence!
Straight Forward Question
“I was a preschool teacher and athletics instructor for elementary-aged students for five years. For me, one of the most shocking things I ever heard a student say came during the end of my teaching career. At the beginning of each school year, I would always ask my classes at the end if they had any questions for me at all, and encourage them to ask me whatever they wanted. Usually, the questions were silly, and/or veiling a secret, anxious fear, like: ‘How old are you?’ or ‘Do have a Pillowpet?’ or, my personal favorite: ‘What if I need to call my mom to check on her?’ But they seemed to serve as a good icebreaker and relax the students, so it was a tradition I continued year after year.
This last time, however, a wily, clever girl named Elizabeth’s hand shot up. ‘When you grow up and get married,’ Elizabeth asked, ‘are you going to marry a boy, or a girl?’
Reflexively, my mind immediately began to formulate my standard answer whenever this subject was skirted, which would be a vague rejection that it should come up at all, something about my personal life being private — but the way she had chosen to frame her question gave me pause to consider. It was easy to evade questions about my preference in dating, or dismiss them outright, with the standard, one-size-fits-all response: ‘Not all boys and girls act or talk the same.’ But she hadn’t exactly asked me about that, had she? She had asked a pretty simple question, one that a straight male teacher would answer immediately and confidently — and if I didn’t do the same, for a crafty, perceptive one like Elizabeth, that would be answer enough.
I took a deep breath. ‘That’s a great question, Elizabeth. As it turns out, I am planning on marrying a boy someday.’
‘Oh, okay, thought so,’ Elizabeth replied, nodding thoughtfully. And that was it.
I waited for them to scream, for someone to burst into tears, for them to erupt into hysterical giggles at the very idea — but they all just sat there, in our circle, looking interested/bored/impatient/ready for free time. Then someone raised their hand and asked if I had a cell phone and if I did, did it have Angry Birds on it by chance?
When I arrived the next day, I was ready for a hoard of angry parents with pitchforks, or at the very least my boss holding up a log of irate phone calls.
But nobody had called. Nobody had cared to. In fact, it was never even brought up again, not even by a student.
I was truly shocked. Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher, but just accepted it as established fact that if I were to work with kids, I would have to learn how to hide a a part of my life and identity. But the paradigm had shifted and that was no longer true. The world had changed from the world I grew up in. When and how the change had occurred exactly, I couldn’t precisely say, but it was a good reminder that we have the power to really truly erode the injustices and discrimination we may face today, and the results can be felt quicker than you might think too.”
Not Too Poor Just Too Stupid
“Just to offer you a small choice of rude remarks students said to me:
-Me: ‘Your homework will be…’ — Student (11 years old!): ‘Forget you!’
-Me (talking about jobs and students’ future prospects): ‘And what will your plans be?’ — Student: ‘Definitely not to become a teacher; only the worst students of a year choose that loser profession.’ Shocking!
-One day after parents’ evening, a student once asked whether I had enjoyed it. I said: ‘Yes, all the parents were really nice, we had nice talks, we agreed on our mutual task to educate you kids.’ etc. Obviously, this was not the answer he had expected. He paused. Finally, he blurted out with a cheeky smile: ‘You didn’t talk to my Mum then because she keeps on telling me and the other parents that you’re the crappiest teacher at this school.’ I was shocked but managed to answer: ‘Really? Well, let’s sort this out, I’ll simply talk to her.’ On my way home, I was very angry and I even got a speeding ticket, which finally freaked me out (I was fast AND furious…). I called her from home and grilled her on the phone for 10 minutes (it was a Friday). On the following Monday, I asked the student whether he had enjoyed the weekend. He said no, his mother had screamed at him because he had been stupid enough to tell me what she had said about me. I just blurted out with a cheeky smile: ‘Your Mum did talk to you then!’
-Some years ago, there was a 17 year-old student in my class. I entered the classroom, she was absent. I booked her and routinely asked the other students if she was ill. Nobody knew except a friend of her; she said: ‘Her boyfriend had a serious accident and she tried to commit suicide yesterday.’ Boy, I was really shocked!
The dumbest answer: One of my students, who had to write a paper on the role model in Victorian Britain, asked me which edition of Jane Austen novels she should choose. I told her to get annotated ones, not the cheapest editions since you find so many cultural references in the annotations as well. I showed her the novels / editions I had read at university 15 years earlier, she copied the ISBN numbers. Some weeks later, she found me in a classroom, obviously having tried to track me down for a while. She seemed desperate and depressed.
S: ‘You MUST help me! I haven’t been successful so far!’
Me (not knowing what she was referring to): ‘What’s happening?’
S: ‘Could I borrow your Austen novels? I can’t afford them.’
Me (thinking that she might come from a poor family): ‘Well, if money’s the problem, you could ask our booster club for it. I’m sure they’ll agree to suppport you, the sum should be something around 20€.’
S (her eyes wide open): ‘You must be joking! It’s thousands of €!’
Me (stunned and waiting for the joke or at least a reaction she was kidding): ‘I think you’re wrong, maybe if you walk up to the staff room, we can sort this out…’
S (handing me some print-outs): ‘You see? These Austen novels from Amazon have a different picture on the front cover. It took me a week to find the novels with the same pictures on them as yours, but they’re out-of-print. Imagine that! I’ll have to buy them from second-hand bookshops, which will cost a fortune!’
I was just standing there, speechless.”
Blue Bouncing WHAT?!
“I had high school kids in a class where they created their own technology-based projects. One girl, about 16, was doing some 3D modelling. I have a hard time doing 3D modelling and told her so. She decided to teach me. She helped me create a blue ball on a table, and then duplicate it so there were several of these blue balls on the table. The next day she was going to show me how to make the balls fall off the table and bounce away.
The next day in class after I took attendance, she said ‘Get over here Mr. XYZ, I want to see your blue balls bounce!’ She had no idea. I had to go do something else so I didn’t burst out laughing because I would have had to explain what was so funny!”
College Will Be Good For Her
“I was teaching literature to first year students at the local university. One morning, as I prepared for class I noticed two students sitting in the front row. They both appeared to be around 18 years old. They were early. They were trying to get to know me and included me in their conversation. They told me they were roommates and both had lived with their parents their entire lives until that week.
They asked me about the new recreation center and as I organized my lesson plan and books I told them all about the center and everything it had to offer, including an olympic-size swimming pool.
The woman sitting by the door told me she loved to swim. She said she had a pool at home and went swimming every afternoon after class to help her relax. She then turned to her new roommate and asked her roommate if she wanted to go swimming when their classes ended. She pointed out that their schedules were nearly identical and it would be a good way to end the day.
The other young woman asked if boys were allowed in the pool. I was a bit distracted, but I told her yes, both men and women used the pool.
Then she said, ‘My parents won’t allow me told me to swim in public pools where boys swim because I can get pregnant.’
I paused with a book in my hand. I wasn’t sure if I misunderstood, or if she was joking. The other young woman started laughing, then stopped. Clearly, her roommate was serious.
‘It’s true,’ the woman insisted. ‘The sperm swims out of their swim suit and through the water. I have never been swimming in a pool with a boy or where boys swim. There were girls at my high school who were pregnant and sometimes they said they didn’t know who the father of their baby was and that’s probably because they were swimming. I’ve never been pregnant because I refused to take swimming classes so I wouldn’t use the same pool as the boys.’
I tried to keep all expression from my face as I continued to prepare for class. I glanced up a few more times to see if they were laughing at me. Surely she had to be joking! But it became shockingly obvious that she was serious.
Other students were coming in the room. The first young woman finally took a deep breath and told her roommate in a soft voice: ‘I think college will be good for you. You are going to learn a lot here.'”
Not What Someone Should Brag About
“‘…and after my mom shot him once, my dad laughed at her and said, “that didn’t even hurt”, so she shot him again. This time he didn’t smile so big, oh no he didn’t, but shoot! He said the same thing the second time, “that didn’t hurt either”, and so she SHOT HIM AGAIN. He fell down dead and we had to call the PO-lice and the AM-bulance. I was up all night! My momma’s in jail right now, mmm-hmm. My uncle drove us kids to school. Y’all gotta ANY questions? Because I saw it all!’
This 3rd grade student was up in front of the class, laughing, right before the school was to start for the day, telling the story of what went down in his home just a few hours before.
I had quickly gone to the teachers lounge to buy a Diet Coke (teachers’ fix) and I came back and passed the classroom where this was happening. I stood in the doorway trying to figure out why this child was standing in front of the class and what he was saying. At the same time I was trying to grasp exactly the importance of what he was saying.
When I finally got a grip on the whole thing, I told him to stop talking and sit down. I had an aide watch the class while I got his teacher out of the bathroom and told her to come quickly and bring the principal with her.
I rushed to my own class where I had his older brother who was in 5th grade. I was hoping to the universe he was not doing the same thing. There’s no way I’d be able to explain that mess to my student’s parents should they go home and say something. I found him at his desk with his head down, sleeping.
I just couldn’t believe the extended family sent the children to school just a few hours after all that happened.
But it wasn’t over yet.
The next night, the mother had been released on bond. The son who was my student left his house in the middle of the night and stole a van. Stealing vans was one of his favorite pastimes.
The police gave chase.
He ran a red light and smashed 80 mph into a small car and killed 3 people. Those 3 people just happened to be friends of mine. This student was just 12 years old.
He was placed in jail, not juvie, in protective custody because of his age. A year later, once the District Attorney got his ducks lined up in a row so he was sure it would stick, I was subpoenaed to testify in a landmark decision that declared a now 13 year old an adult so he could be put on trial and sent to prison.
Due to his extensive criminal record before this particular event happened, and the fear he induced upon the community, the DA wanted him off the streets longer than the juvenile system would be able to keep him.
He received 10 years for each death and was paroled in 2006 according to records I’ve just been able to find on the internet. I moved far from the city it happened in 8 years ago.”
“I was teaching syllabication, breaking words into syllables, to my second graders. I did not really think about it, but several examples in our book, (could have been all up to this point), actually made two words when broken into syllables. They were not compound words.
One bright young girl asked, ‘What does kit and ten have to do with kitten?’ I was gobsmacked for a moment. Of course, you have to keep a straight face. I told the class it was a great question because we have compound words that are two words combined and multi-syllabic words that may have syllables that are words, like kit and ten, but are not compound words.”
“This didn’t occur where I’m currently teaching, but when I was in High School myself. I was a pretty smart guy, and took an Earth & Space (easy science class) right after my AP Physics class (really hard science class) … needless to say the difference in intelligence was like night and day. Here I am, brain running a million miles a minute after Physics (where I was admittedly far from the smartest), into a class of people who only took Earth and Space because they had to get another science credit. Sure, some of them were pretty intelligent when it came to science. Above average, even. But not all.
Some questions are okay when you’re 5 – not when you’re 15… my Earth & Space class had a few doozies. Granted, that she didn’t know about it was worth correcting… still, this is the type of stuff that a 15 year old should have picked up enough in passing and should be able to figure out for themselves. She was the sort that wanted everyone to do things for her, including asking me to just do her homework or class assignments, hoping to get by on looks and that they’d cause this nerd to swoon.
Girl: ‘Why don’t people on the bottom of the Earth fall off?’
Teacher: face slowly morphs from being astounded to realizing he might not know how to explain in terms she can understand. ‘…uh…. Uh….’
Girl: ‘Ooooooh…. Well then why don’t they feel upside down?’
Teacher: still astounded
Me: ‘Gravity makes “down” feel like the center of the Earth.’
Girl: ‘Oooooh I get it now.’
Me: internally No you don’t. Not at all.
I felt bad for giving her a conceptually incorrect answer, but we didn’t have all day, and the teacher pondered it for a second, realized it would get her through life as much could be expected of her at that point, and shrugged and got in with the lesson.
The next one, I have to give credit for; she wasn’t exactly dumb (still the sort to not care about her education) but her question itself was shocking; or rather, the concept error was.
Another girl, different day: ‘How do you determine the waterness of something?’
Teacher: ‘The… waterness?’
Girl: ‘Yeah, how much water something has in it… I can’t remember the real word for it.’
Teacher: ‘Like saturation?’
Girl: ‘No not that…’
At this point the whole class asked the girl in varying ways what she meant, but after five minutes the teacher decided it was too much a diversion and she had some gross concept error that couldn’t be fixed at the time.
I finally realized it, based on some of things she’d said as we questioned her.
Me, Randomly during the lesson: ‘You mean density, right?’
We then had to spend the next few minutes explaining to her just what density was. She seemed to get it.”
Not A Typical Question A 5 Year Old Asks
“I once worked in a pre-K classroom in an American international school in Brazil. The curriculum had prescribed units of study and while we had a fair amount of flexibility, there wasn’t a lot of flexibility to study in depth what kids showed interest in spontaneously. The school has a good program but when two 5 year old kids interrupted my small group lesson with these questions, I wish I could’ve built a unit around it as in emergent curricula (curricula that build units from the emergent interests of the students like Reggio or Creative Curriculum).
I was giving a small group lesson on writing while the rest of the class was playing/ working in self selected centers when a girl and boy interrupted, so I could resolve a dispute they got into. I almost cut them off and said don’t interrupt. I’m glad I didn’t.
The boy said to me, ‘Mr. Johnston, Mr. Johnston, tell her that infinity is a straight line that goes on and on forever’.
Then the little girl answered, ‘No, no, no, tell him that infinity is a circle that goes around and around forever and ever and doesn’t stop’.
This, out of the mouths of five-year-olds. I had never heard, and have never heard since, two preschool kids get into an argument over fundamental differences in such an abstract and philosophical topic as the nature of infinity. It blew my mind.
I just kinda stared at them for a couple of seconds with my mouth gaping open slightly, wishing I could do more than just give a short, accurate answer with little meaning to these two little geniuses by saying, “It can be both” and actually build some activities that would’ve been fun, engaging, and educational. But my hands were tied. I was both thrilled and very disheartened at the same time.
I turned back around and finished my small group lesson on Q.”
He Wasn’t Wrong
“I was teaching grades 2/3 at a country school in Tasmania where kids came from varying backgrounds and some lived alternately and off the land.
One day I sat the kids down after morning break and talked about verbs or ‘doing words’ as they are described. I showed them pictures of people doing things.
I said we’re going to write some verbs in our books today. I went on about how we do things and verbs were a category of words and I gave some examples and told them that most verbs ended in ‘-ing’.
‘So who can think of some doing words, like running or jumping?’
With a bit of head scratching the kids came up with suggestions. ‘thinking… writing…jumping…’.
‘Yes, very good’, I said.
‘Oh yes, very good, tremendous, excellent everybody’. The suggestions came in thick and fast and it was obvious they ‘got’ it. ‘Now could you all go and write a list of 10 verbs and some pictures in your book!’.
Just as they’re heading off to get their books little Johnny who had previously not come up with any words looked very excited, waving his hand about piped up. ‘I’ve got one, I’ve got one!’. Now Johnny wasn’t the cleverest kid in the class but he tried so I asked the class to listen very carefully to what Johnny was going to say and probably give him a clap after he said his verb.
‘What’s your verb Johnny and I’ll write it on the board?’ I’d had tried to build up the class so Johnny would feel rewarded for his effort.
In a pretty strong voice Johnny said ‘[F word]-ing!!! That’s a doing word’. I remember just being a bit flabbergasted and not saying anything. Johnny went on to say, ‘You know [F word]-ing!! When you [F word] someone!”
‘That’s a doing word, isn’t it, you know when you [F word] someone?’, he blurted it out without a care in the world. No one had told him about swearing yet but I started that day.
‘Well we might leave that one out Johnny, that’s a swear word’, I said.
‘Why, what’s a swear word?’.
I’m sure you can imagine the rest of the conversation. I told the staff at lunch and it was a crack up. Apparently little Johnny, was the youngest of 6 kids. His dad used to swear a lot and they all lived in a big shed as they’d been building a house in the country.
One funny moment!”