Jason, are you chewing?

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Rhetorical question as social control? Geoff Barton explores teacherspeak.

Every profession has its specialist vocabulary. A hospital drama, for example, wouldn't feel authentic if a boyish doctor didn't suddenly yell, "For God's sake, get me the ECG. And why isn't this anaesthetic kicking in?"

Teaching is the same, full of technical terms, cliches, and linguistic conventions. Many of us enter the profession determined that we will not slump into the verbal habits of our own teachers, eager to hold out against the grip of teacherspeak. Few of us achieve such an apparently straightforward ambition because our best intentions are overcome by forces from our past.

For example, many of us learned the subterfuge of names early in childhood. Parents and teachers seemed happy to call us by our first name and to reinforce our successes with personalised praise, "Well done, Susan" and "Peter, that's good".

Then we did something to offend and the dark weight of the surname was invoked: "Susan Blake, stop that at once." It was a brisk subconscious lesson in the link between language and power, the surname added to ensure we understood just who was in charge.

This is a language trait we may have wished never to employ, but one which in times of stress is likely to emerge and haunt us. Teacherspeak is, in fact, a self-perpetuating form. Under pressure, familiar verbal patterns unleash themselves. Rhetorical questions, poison put-downs, names used for class control - out they tumble, unstoppably.

It might be useful to hold on to a simple principle. Teachers' use of language is essentially absurd. In real life we ask questions to get answers, to find out more about the world. But teachers are people paid to ask questions to which they already know the answers.

Sometimes these are interrogations of our subject: "So, just what do we mean by electrolysis, Darren?" More often they are insidious tools of social control. And there is no more effective way of controlling a class than by asking patently foolish questions.

Example one. We observe a child chewing. "Jason, are you chewing?" we bark. Jason blushes furiously. An absurd question has hit home.

Example two. A class is restless. It's the fag-end of the day and they would rather be at home, on the bus, anywhere but here. They're clearly not appreciating a single word of our acquired wisdom. A naked cabaret would hardly rouse them. Our response? An obvious question is launched. "Are you listening?" It is a deeply ridiculous,though frequently effective, inquiry.

So questions, along with names, are perhaps the most powerful weapons in the the teacher's armoury. A few months into the job and we fire them with remorseless accuracy at unwitting targets. Did you hear what I just said? Why did you forget your homework? Is that an earring in your ear?

Then there is the way teachers use names. Don't be fooled by media versions of teaching, all those episodes of Grange Hill where teachers address pupils by their last name. "Ah, Smith, see me at my office at the end of school." These examples are phony. Teachers are as unlikely to address students routinely by their last name as to indulge in that other TV stereotype of "Trendy Teach". You know the one - new young teacher walks into class, sits on the edge of the desk, checks his tie isn't done up and begins: "Hi kids, call me Dave."

Nevertheless, names provide the effective teacher with a powerful classroom technique. Alan Bennett exaggerated only a little in Forty Years On with: "Thirty years ago today, Tupper, the Germans marched into Poland and you're picking your nose." It's an elegant parry - maintaining the flow of the sentence while pinpointing the victim with a mild rebuke. We also adopt the specialist vocabulary of teaching, some of it surprisingly aggressive. We now talk at GCSE level of "terminal" examinations, as if they were the end-product of some unspeakable disease.

We cling on to language whose purpose seems chiefly to hold outsiders at bay - jargon, in other words. A senior manager at one school used to refer to NTPs - non-teaching persons. These, if you think bout it, consist of the entire population of the world apart from teachers - surely a curiously egocentric view of the universe. Then we talk glibly of IT and ITT, INSET and GEST, SCAA, DFEE and PGCE. Added to which is a swathe of localised language, the jargon of individual insitutions.

All of which reminds us that becoming a teacher is about more than knowing your subject. It is about being a communicator, a language expert. As George Sampson said at the start of the century, "Every teacher in English is a teacher of English." Just as learning a language is a never-ending process, so using language as a teacher can remain creative and innovative. But only if the shimmering cliches of teacherspeak can be navigated, or avoided - like the plague.

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