To assume makes an ass out of u, me and Year 7

25th June 2010 at 01:00

In teaching, you must be careful that what you think they think you mean really is what they think you mean. If you think they think you mean one thing and they think you think you mean another - well, frankly, you're stuffed. So, it's best to check.

It's the same with what you think you said. If they think you think you said ... OK, you get the picture.

Roughly translated: don't assume anything. Assuming things is a high-risk activity like bungee-jumping, kayaking near crocodiles, and using another teacher's mug.

Some council workers in Swansea discovered this. They had produced a sign warning HGV drivers not to enter a residential area. But they needed the sign in Welsh as well as English, so they sent the English version to a translator at the council. They got an email back and printed it on the sign. Only, the Welsh bit fell short of a word-for-word translation, as it said: "I am not at the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated." It wasn't until the sign went up (and became a "most read" item on the BBC website) that the council workers realised their mistake.

When I was first teaching, this all came as a shock. I assumed Year 7s would know that reaching the end of a page meant turning over. Wrong. I assumed they would get their homework diaries out if I started writing the homework on the board. Wrong. I assumed that if I said "work quietly" they would know this didn't mean "yell across the room like Hiawatha". Wrong. And when I said "now give in your homework" and they advanced on me like panicked wildebeest, that was when I realised that even wildebeest need clear, unambiguous instructions.

It is worse for us secondary school teachers. If you have just taught Year 13 notions of linguistic correctness in the 18th century and then move into spelling plurals with Year 7s, your assumptions about what each group can do get muddled. No wonder my Year 7s get intimidated if I demand, "So what would Dr Johnson and his contemporaries have said about that then? Eh? Eh? Three sides of A4 by tomorrow!"

It's not just in the classroom, though, that making assumptions means trouble. It's with colleagues, too. How often do we say, "But I thought you realised"? This is exactly what an ex-boss had to say to me when, as a new recruit, I'd ordered 50 copies of Lord of the Flies when there were already 150 in the stock cupboard. That was, for him, about #163;400 worth of wishing he hadn't assumed. (That's not why he's an "ex-boss", by the way. I think.)

I'm sure Parliament assumed that its definition of "partner" in the rules banning MPs from "leasing accommodation to a partner" was very clear. David Laws, chief secretary to the Treasury for 43 minutes, obviously needed clearer guidance. However, that is like Year 11s assuming that when I say, "You can talk, but only about the work," they can redefine that to mean moaning about the work. It's like Year 9s hearing "don't chew gum" as "don't let me see you chewing gum".

Whether you govern the country or a classroom, don't assume a thing. Know what I mean?

Fran Hill, English teacher at an independent girls' school, Warwickshire.

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