In my school, there are posters warning students to steer clear of the “danger zone” while writing. These posters are tongue-in-cheek, predate any of the teachers in the building, and are mostly harmless: They tell students to check their paper for careless errors. A lowercase first-person I, for example, or not indenting a new paragraph.
Every time I see these posters, though, I think about whether my colleagues or superiors would classify the way I speak—and, more specifically, the way my family speaks—as being in the “danger zone.”
I am from Appalachia—Eastern Kentucky, to be more specific. It is a fact as inescapable as my short height or thick hair—home pushes its way out of my mouth at any opportunity but particularly in moments of high emotion. Long i’s are tricky—requests for ice, white rice, or directions for my students to get out their device immediately differentiate me from my northwestern Kentucky students and co-workers who speak mostly like their Midwestern neighbors. Difficult to shake, too, are words so common in my upbringing that I assumed they were sprinkled throughout everyone else’s: y’all, ain’t, waller (wallow), holler (hollow).
Here is probably a good place to admit that I teach language arts.
Ironically, it was my Appalachian upbringing that pushed me toward a love of story and language. I grew up listening to relatives weave fanciful tales, turning family stories into exaggerated lore. I heard expressions so colorful that the English I heard on television or in classrooms seemed dull by comparison; when someone sneezed near my grandmother, for example, she exclaimed, “Scat, Tom! Your tail is in the gravy!”
As I grew older, I became fascinated with the complexities of Appalachian speech. I discovered experts believed it to largely be the linguistic remnants of Scots-Irish migration. I also found the variations intriguing. My twang sounded much different from my Appalachian neighbors’ speech in Ohio or Georgia. Each nuance I noted only fueled my love for words, and that love propelled me to obtain a teaching certification, two additional master’s degrees, and publish a middle-grade novel.
When a stranger hears me speak, they don’t know about any of that.
In my hometown, I can speak freely. The cashier at the gas station doesn’t expect me to use the King’s English nor does the old lady from church who has known me all my life. When I’m teaching, though, or when I’m meeting with parents or presenting at a conference or attending a back-to-school picnic, the expectations are different.
Recently, while speaking to a group of parents, I referenced a research project one of my students completed on the company Nike. I should have known—it was another long i, after all. After my second pronunciation of “Nike,” a parent crinkled her nose, grinned, and asked, “Can you say that one more time?”
The insinuation, of course, was that she thought my accent was cute. It could have been my insecurities rearing their head, but I imagined another insinuation, too: How can I be trusted to teach her child the intricacies of the English language speaking the way I do?
How can I be trusted to teach [a] child the intricacies of the English language speaking the way I do?
This wasn’t an altogether new experience. I lived for three years in Phoenix; after briefly discussing what I was looking for in a vehicle with a car salesman, he expressed surprise that I had all my teeth and wore shoes. He asked, too, if I could possibly bring him a jar of moonshine. Months earlier, my then-husband—who was desperately trying to mask his own Appalachian speech to impress our new Western neighbors—chided me when I asked for “pop” rather than “soda” at a food truck.
This stereotyping is most familiar to me in a school setting, though. At the beginning of my teaching career, the mother of a failing student attended conferences solely to imply her student’s troubles stemmed from not being able to understand me. (Rest assured that was not the issue.) I’ve overheard frustrated students mock me behind my back in an impression reminiscent of Larry the Cable Guy. Before teaching interviews, I’ve spent an entire half hour in my car rounding out my words, shortening my long i’s, desperately attempting to sound like someone else.
Because no one imagines an English teacher who sounds like me.
Although this always stings, I don’t necessarily fault people for this line of thinking. We English majors tend to be particularly proud of our grammar prowess and articulate nature. I’ve seen grammar-police mugs and hats and bumper stickers. Heck, I’ve even owned a few. Prevalent, too, are misconceptions and stereotypes about people with Appalachian or Southern accents. Listen to comedians and television personalities who are imitating someone they believe to be stupid. Nine times out of 10, they parrot a voice that sounds like my grandparents, like my mother, like my cousins. Like me.
Being an educator with a frowned-upon accent made me reevaluate how I teach conventions. It’s important for my writing and communication—and my students’ writing and communication—to be clear. But, if it is, isn’t it OK that an “ain’t” slips out of my mouth every now and again? Isn’t it OK, too, for my students to allow their own cultures and upbringings to seep through and perhaps even dominate their writing and speech?
While clarity is important, helping students find or retain their own narrative voices is important, too. There are countless literary “classics” that feature characters with regional accents and homegrown slang: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Color Purple, A Clockwork Orange, The Outsiders. How many times have teachers extolled the virtues of a text but scolded their students for naturally speaking like the main characters? Shouldn’t we instead encourage students to tell the stories important to them in ways that make sense and feel authentic?
We should encourage students to celebrate their accents, not soften them. Personally, I tend to live by the “tuxedo rule.” The saying goes like this: When it comes to formal speech, you should treat it like a tuxedo—know the correct occasion to don one but also be aware of when such formality is not needed or welcome. And I don’t know about y’all, but when I’m at home among my family or collaborating with my colleagues or having a fun, impromptu moment with my students, the last thing I want to do is put on a tuxedo.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as Teaching With a Twang