The battle to stop effing and blinding

15th May 2015 at 01:00
When the air turns blue, it can be hard to convince students that their language is a problem - but their careers could depend on it

"I hate fucking writing assignments, I'm shit at it."

And so we begin the great battle with students who cannot manage to utter a sentence without some profanity spewing out of their mouths.

Most of us will have dealt with inappropriate language on numerous occasions and sanctioned accordingly. However, it is important not just to discipline students but to help them realise why it's unacceptable to use swear words as sentence adornments. This is particularly true in further education, where students need to understand that curbing the colourful language is even more important now they are entering adulthood: there will be times ahead when circumstances, settings and situations require careful control of what comes out of their mouths.

Swearing doesn't just affect students in the lowest sets, as some claim - all young people are capable of it. Some do it to get a reaction but many swear without thinking. The latter group can prove particularly troublesome: how do you stop someone from using bad language when they don't even realise they're doing it?

Often, to get to the swearing issue, you have to battle through emotional baggage from past educational experiences and issues at home. You are not just dealing with one problem; you may have a number of issues to unpick in tackling appropriate language.

Speak carefully

Although you may fully understand these challenges, they can be forgotten when you walk in to particularly difficult classes - the kind where getting students to focus for more than 10 minutes is tricky and asking them to put their phones away is like telling them to chop off their right hands. You are fighting on multiple fronts. So when you hear sentences like "I don't want to do that shit", it is easy to react instinctively.

This often means going in all guns blazing and confiscating phones, demanding an end to foul language and expecting full concentration for at least 20 minutes. This is the wrong approach. If you are dealing with this issue in FE or the later stages of school, the student in question will already have had several years of teachers trying this tactic (and clearly it hasn't worked).

I used to try it anyway, of course. I was obsessed with sticking to my PGCE training and keeping to Ofsted's rules. All I managed to do, though, was get myself into a tizz and ensure that hardly any progress was made.

Future focus

Whether you like it or not, you need to address one issue at a time. In the end, I chose to focus on getting work completed, stimulating interest in the subject matter and relating it to students' careers. In this way, they were invested in what we were doing and could put it into the context of their own lives.

Once you've achieved that, you can discuss swearing. Students will often question why it's a problem; they may tell you that all their friends and family use the same language.

This is where a work placement or part-time job can help. This can be a rude awakening to the reality of being in a workplace, and it can have a lasting impact.

It is also helpful to build up a picture of the person the student wishes to be. One way I try to achieve this is by getting students to create a description of the perfect employee. In this way they can take ownership of deciding which traits are positive and which are negative. They usually end up giving their own reasons for curbing foul language and being aware of other issues such as restricting mobile phone use to appropriate times. Once you hook students in to thinking beyond the here and now, they start to consider their aspirations and the changes they need to make to achieve them.

Such measures might not work for everyone but they do work for most. The language slowly starts to get better; instead of just shouting out profanities, students begin to monitor themselves, apologise or replace swear words with less offensive options. When they're doing that, you know you've made a lasting impression.

Carolyn O'Connor teaches at an FE college in north-west England

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