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No bloody swearing

We hear a lot about "the line", the nebulous measure of what is and isn't acceptable. Toeing it is good, crossing it is bad. One would assume that in college, "the line" regarding behaviour is well defined. However, it's not always completely clear.

In response to escalating behaviour problems at my college, senior management brought in the big guns, in the form of expert teacher-wrangler (and TESpro contributor) Paul Dix and his Pivotal Education team. Paul's work with the staff was transformative and certainly changed the way I manage and resolve conflict.

Paul told us a story about how staff morale was raised and behaviour revolutionised through a joint initiative to change just one specific and measurable aspect of behaviour over a set number of days. We were urged to follow the same framework and every member of staff nominated an aspect of behaviour they wanted to address. Mine was lateness.

Votes were counted and the mandate was announced: "Every member of staff should challenge any student heard (or overheard) swearing ... everywhere on every campus."

"Swearing? Are you all fucking nuts?" I thought. This target was not specific enough and it would be tricky to measure the improvement. Admittedly, I may be biased. There is not a swear word invented that I don't fully embrace. Swearing can be a dull communicative shortcut, but it can also be a siphon of creative ingenuity. Anyone who has witnessed the gloriously verbose character Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It or read any Charlie Brooker can testify to this.

Of course, it's all about context. I have never allowed swearing in my classes, as they are designed to prepare learners for employment, where use of potentially offensive language is deemed inappropriate. However, if I walk past a couple of 19-year-olds having a private conversation and overhear them using a swear word, is it my place to scold them?

I find it difficult to clearly define the line when it comes to swearing. It would be a general assumption that the Fs and Cs are on the wrong side of it. I wouldn't categorise racist, homophobic or other vocabulary of hatred as swearing - those words are unacceptable in any context. And what about swearing-lite? Do we have to place a diktat on dick, sod and bugger?

Suffice to say, the strategy did not produce conclusive results. I considered it to be a missed opportunity for a collaborative strengthening of morale, but I did enforce it, as it was a democratic decision to do so. I did ... I swear.

Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in a large inner-city FE college.

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