What we say and what they hear

You say it with widely varying degrees of success… when you say nothing at all.

Ronan Keating (first draft)

Sometimes words that are not said are the most memorable. In my NQT year, I repeatedly observed an experienced teacher for whom I had a great deal of respect. She was a warm, engaging, thoughtful person with sky-high expectations, and I learned plenty from watching her. Quite unfairly, however, one phrase that she used with her year 6 maths class has stuck in my memory. Whenever the class’s motivation seemed to wane, she would stop, pause for effect and then – with a quiet severity in her voice – ask the children, rhetorically, “Bus stop or BMW? Which do you want when you’re older?” The very idea struck me as odd at the time, and with each passing year I wonder more why I did not question it.

Just think about the pair of implications that are attached to that pithy phrase, “Bus stop or BMW?”: that – at the age of 10 or 11 – the aim of education is eventual wealth; and that using public transport is a ‘bad thing’ to be avoided through academic success. I suspect that the teacher in question, if pressed, would have described the purposes of education in the same idealistic tones that we are conditioned to expect from the profession. Regardless, a phrase she used to motivate her class – “bus stop or BMW” – contained within it a set of counter-productive implications that the students cannot have failed to have grasped.


Now, I’m not saying that this is definitely the consequence…

Learning algebra and the subjunctive voice may not come easily to most children, but they are naturals when it comes to inferring the implicit messages beneath what adults say. They are like jazz aficionados hearing every note left unplayed. Recently, Doug Lemov[i] and Adam Boxer[ii] wrote blog-posts that discuss the subtle linguistic cues that students pick up on. Regardless of one’s views on these methods of behaviour management, both of those teachers are keenly aware of the power of the implicit and how we must think carefully about how we control it. It has made me think about some other common teacher interactions that I have heard in schools over the years and the implied messages that were inadvertently communicated:

I expect better effort from someone as clever as you. = If you struggle with this subject, I don’t really expect you to try hard.

Ten out of ten? That’s amazing! = I am surprised that you succeeded.

Everyone’s good at something. = Working hard to improve is not as important as having one skill at which you are naturally better than other people. Anchor your self-worth on that one thing.

Someone called you ugly? How silly! You’re not ugly at all! = Someone gave a negative judgement of your appearance, but don’t worry because I’m judging you positively in that regard. There’s no need to question the entire premise of superficiality that underlies the insult and my response.

Sometimes the implication is caused by omission:

You called another student “gay”? That’s totally unacceptable. = Saying that someone is a homosexual is an egregious insult.

In the last example, one would surely want to make it explicit that the unacceptable act was using “gay” as an insult rather than anything inherent in the word itself. Considering our implicit messages is never more important than when we’re challenging the students’ own assumptions in the hope that they might gain another perspective with which to view their world.

It’s hard to analyse the exact implications of every statement that we make. Heaven knows that I can put my foot in it.[iii] It’s worth being reminded occasionally of the importance of the implicit in every situation, not just in the day-to-day struggle of behaviour management. Sometimes words that are not said are the most memorable.



[i] http://teachlikeachampion.com/tag/behavioral-expectations/

[ii] https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2019/03/20/managing-management-a-couple-of-tips-and-tricks-for-better-behaviour/

[iii] This blog post is for my friend and colleague who, having returned to work following her pregnancy, was greeted by the following words from my stupid mouth: “Wow! You look like you’ve lost fifty stone!” The fact that she took my ‘compliment’ in the spirit that it was intended is indicative of her generosity and tolerance.

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