Some pupils have been taking the mickey out of my accent. How can I stop it without seeming petty?

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Dear Ted

Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice -or offer some of your own

Ted says

It depends which accent you have. Some have higher status than others and there is a difference in the ease with which children can understand accents. The first time I asked someone for directions in Newcastle I thought I had been answered in Martian, though I now understand Geordie perfectly.

I wonder why children are taking the mickey. If they like you, enjoy your lessons and get on with their work, but like a laugh, it is not the same as teaching a class that can't stand you, hates your lessons and seeks every opportunity to undermine you.

Another factor is whether teasing of a teacher's accent is indicative of a bullying culture towards children who are different in some way: a far more menacing situation that would demand you address the whole climate in the classroom and even in the school.

If the teasing bothers you, you should take some action. It might be worth spending a little time on the issue in class, even if you teach physics.

Every adult is a teacher of citizenship, behaviour, communication and personal and social development. "Being different" is a perfectly good topic of conversation, as is "effective communication", because children may actually have difficulty following what you say, and their joking may signal their dilemma.

There are several options, from adopting an authoritarian line and saying you are not prepared to put up with people calling out or mocking your accent, to taking elocution lessons. It might be worth having a private conversation, out of class, with some of the mickey-takers to see if you can fathom the reason for it and plan your action accordingly.

You say

Take it with a pinch of salt

Important tools for any teacher are a thick skin and an ability to laugh at yourself. As long as the comments are not racist or malicious, try using wry humour.

At 4ft 10in, I face constant teasing about my height, and I have to be good humoured. When they stand next to me and say, "Miss, I'm taller than you", I usually reply, with a smile: "Well it's not much to boast about is it?"

When they can see I am not bothered or am amused, they usually give up.

A simple response such as: "I have been rehearsing my funny accent for years; perhaps you need a bit more practice," might do the trick. Or: "Do you want proper lessons? I'm starting after-school classes next week."

However you respond, remember to smile or grin; it might be through clenched teeth to start with, but you'll get used to it. Good luck.

Lin Sheffrin, Isle of Wight

Beat them to it

Mockery of your accent is an effective weapon in the hands of your pupils only if you have an issue with it. If they sense they can provoke or embarrass you they will try to get a response. I'd suggest you beat them to the draw, by having a few of your own one-liners up your sleeve. Perhaps:

"I know you are unfortunately unable to speak this way, but if you listen and try hard you might be able to speak proper English by following my example."

In the final on-stage confrontation in the movie 8 Mile, rapper Eminem takes the wind out of his enemy's sails by laying out all the insults that could be thrown against him. By getting them in first, he left his opponent with nothing to say.

David Booker, Leicestershire

If you've got it , flaunt it

It may depend on how you view your accent. It was only after someone complimented my north-east Lancashire accent that I became completely comfortable with it.

When pupils mimic you, why not go with the flow? Smile, praise their effort and respond even more broadly, but correct any shortcomings in pronunciation and dialect. You are the expert, so assert your position. You might enjoy it. I am still convinced by a few likeable pupils and my closest colleagues that imitation can be a form of flattery.

Nigel Hydes, Suffolk

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