O for tricolons in assembly - but a Doric column in the sports hall will do

16th January 2009 at 00:00

I have been watching Obama to learn about leadership from the greatest exponent of modern times. During the election campaign, he sent out lots of emails, so I have replied, asking for tips. Oddly there has been no response so far.

His oratorical brilliance is much admired, so I have started there. I'm keen to improve my assembly delivery and I'm even thinking of getting the Doric pillars he favours as a backdrop painted on the sports hall walls.

His most famous device is the old Ciceronian technique: the "tricolon", which means using a series of three for emphasis. So should I begin my next assembly with an adaptation of "I came; I saw; I conquered"? There would be much throat-clearing for: "I'm waiting; I'm still waiting; right ... I'm going off on one!" Would it sound more dignified in Latin, I wonder?

Then there's periphrasis, the use of a roundabout phrase such as "a young preacher from Georgia", rather than the name itself, Martin Luther King. But I do this all the time: "I want to know the name of the student who vandalised bus 17 last night," I declaim, hoping that someone will heed my message and dob the culprit in. "Yes, I'm talking to you," is also powerfully rhetorical if half the school think you are looking at them. But Obama never has trouble holding the attention of his audience.

I have also tried his use of praeteritio, where you draw attention to a subject by saying you're not going to talk about it. But the groans, glazed eyes and knowing looks (did you spot the tricolon?) are a giveaway to an adolescent audience: "I'm not going to mention litter, sloppy uniform or poor attendance." The looks on their faces send the echoing response, "Oh yes you are!"

I'm still trying to match the lyrical, soaring flow of rhetoric that is Obama's trademark: "I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas." But, "I am the son of an unemployed Irish wool sorter and a Bradford dinner lady" doesn't have quite the same mystique.

Perhaps a bit of anaphora is the answer, an Obama stock-in-trade whereby a phrase is repeated at the start of successive sentences. This tactic begins to appeal as, in preparation for the next staff meeting, I muse on ways to improve examination performance : "It's the answer told by teachers in classrooms, from school to shining school; it's the answer spoken in staffrooms across the land, from coast to gleaming coast; it's the answer to the GCSE maths problem that will get all students, from the backyards of Buckfastleigh to the front porches of Plymouth: five high-grade GCSEs." Lovely rhetoric. We may not have the solution, but it sounds as if we do. Even my governors might fall for that one.

Or how about this, modelled on his 2004 convention speech: "We're entering a new post-Sats age in which there will be no key stage 3 students or KS4 students, only South Dartmoor students." That should wow them.

My hope is that the new president will influence the young in this country and push UK teachers to encourage and lead in a new age of optimism. Meanwhile, I will keep learning from the rhetoric, even though I know it cannot be matched. The best I can hope for is a well-painted Doric column and an encouraging email from the US.

Ray Tarleton, Principal, South Dartmoor Community College, Ashburton, Devon.

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