Tag Archives: language

Name And Shame

Because one of my subject specialisms is English, the illiterate dribblings that pass for blog entries in my world may come as a surprise. Regardless, I occasionally like to take a break from rattling my chains about the same old same olds, in favour of a more linguistically-focused perspective on the world of education. See earlier post on adverts for teaching jobs.

Like most people in the teaching profession, I’ve chosen/accepted jobs on the basis of irrelevant garbage: location; additional responsibility (as little as possible, please); broadening experience, and so on. In most cases, these criteria have served just fine, with neither myself nor my employer emerging from the experience resembling a tissue that’s been fed through a shredder.

However, with responsibility and experience entailing a massive – and increasing – multiplication of workload, and with much of one’s time expected to be spent bullying staff already treated with suspicion, now is, perhaps, the point at which to change tack and select jobs for other reasons. With so many being rebranded under new management, why not, for instance, choose a school for its name, preferred jargon or motto – all of which attest to its underlying aesthetic, and sometimes with more candour than intended. In fact, the more ‘Eh?’–inspiring the name, the better, if only because one is, at least, guaranteed a daily laugh. How many teachers can say that with assurance these days?

Academies seem to be especially adept at coming up with the most godawful names. I especially like the aspirational moniker, whose lofty imagery, almost invariably, ends up sounding like the name of a housing development or an aerobics class –  ‘Reach’, ‘City Heights’ and so on. Just imagine: if the members of seventies’ soul supergroup Rose Royce can only find it in themselves to sponsor a school, we could yet see the ‘Wishing on a Star Academy’ (although, in the current Eton mess, ‘Working at the Car Wash’ might be a more accurate description of alumnae destinations).

Other new schools take a more defiantly modern approach to the testy question of nomenclature. Maybe it’s just me who finds something chillingly Pol Pot in ‘Academy 21’, although I admit to quite liking the urban strut of the aforementioned ‘City Heights’. Especially when ably assisted on backing vocals by ‘Capital City Academy’ and ‘London Academy’. In otherwise fallow moments, I like to imagine them in lethal stilettos, each with one hand on a hip and the other delivering that finger-wagging gesture that says “Talk to the UN ‘cos NATO ain’t listening”. Something like that, anyway.

Then there are the chains of schools, like Oasis and ARK, with their headteachers straight out of kindergarten and their Brit-pop names. ‘Oasis’ is a little hubristic for a church-based chain, with its implication that all the others constitute a desert of dreadfulness (so, not that far from the Gallaghers, after all). ARK, meanwhile, stands for ‘Absolute Return for Kids’ – a name that suggests it should be followed by instructions on retaining proof of purchase and any original packaging. My undoubted favourite, however, is the renaming of a south London school that once boasted the most terrible of reputations. With a moniker now identical to that of several Greek villages, I assume that the institution in question was aiming for some philosophically-inflected gravitas, rather than the actual outcome of a name that translates as ‘bananas’ in Spanish.

Still, if the names don’t do the trick, what about the jargon? In some schools, the acronym is the new king (TANK). I once worked in a school where I was expected to be conversant with SIPs, DIPs, FIPs and YIPs. Assuming them to be canine diseases, I was surprised to find that they were, in fact, proformas. Perhaps that was where the rot set in. In other schools, instructions are issued to students via such cryptic codes as SLANT, STEP and STAR. Here’s another abbreviation: WTF?

Admittedly, this practice enables disciples of the Church of Doug Lemov to spot each other, by demonstrating their freedom from the pesky circumlocution that is the Full Sentence. A bit like Billy Crystal’s waiter in Spinal Tap, reminding his co-worker that “mime is money”, the bible that is Teach Like a Champion helps us to remember that words are just so many more unnecessary cogs in a giant machine producing Ludknowswhat. I imagine it’s a tough gig being an English teacher in such a place, having to divest yourself of outmoded beliefs in language as the vehicle of beauty and all that. If you’re incarcerated in one, and still possess some capacity for independent thought, at least grab the opportunity to create some acronyms of your own. Pursuing Excellence by Not Indulging in Slovenliness, perhaps. Or Acronymaniacs Aren’t Always Garrulously Happy.

So, since following the jargon yields few feasible destinations in my imaginary job-hunt, I turn to, perhaps, the most revelatory of language uses: the motto. An aforementioned school boasts the corking ‘Attitude Determines Altitude’, thereby demonstrating that, while one gaffe is unfortunate, two amount to carelessness. Tempted as I am to daub “Just Ask Icarus” on the school gates, I’m not as opposed as I claim to shoehorning the pursuit of excellence into every crook and nanny ( the categories occupied by senior management and teaching staff respectively): leaving aside its mendacity, even I drew the line above a friend’s suggestion that ‘Nobody Died’ was an axiom worth considering. At another former place of employment, the motto’s emphasis was so heavily on servitude that the staff privately translated it as ‘You rang, Master?’.

A shame. Almost as unfortunate a case as that of a head teacher who decided to celebrate his the school’s outstandingness by commissioning a standing stone for the entrance, bearing pithy wisdoms from the founder of the religious order to which the place was affiliated. Most of these bon mots were innocuous enough: ‘Do something’, ‘Risk new things’ and so on. However, ‘Get on your knees’ followed by ‘Then be ready for big surprises!’ tends to generate meanings other than those intended by a sixteenth-century nun. Pride, it cometh before a fall.

Sad to relate, the head teacher concerned a) didn’t notice the smut and b) did not confine his expressions of zeal to the monument. Oh no. Commemorative bookmarks, daily prayers and school ceremonies were liberally sprinkled with sayings whose implications remained unpointed-out by staff with too much grace/fear/schadenfreude to contradict. Instead, for months, they sucked their cheeks in with the force of industrial hoovers and avoided making eye-contact, lest they dissolve into puddles of their own making. I should know: I often had to be wrung out of an entire roll of J-Cloths.

So, maybe I’ll stay put for the time being. Although I have come across a school whose name I mistook for ‘Asshole’…

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Speaking In Tongues

Way back when, I would use estate agents’ copy to teach my students about euphemism. They’d laugh, with mild shock, at language so elastic that ‘bijou’ denoted a space big enough for your nose hairs to tickle the walls, and ‘characterful’ meant that the local wino had been an unofficial tenant for the past decade. My students would then make up their own examples, recasting a property with broken windows as “possessing a comprehensive system of ventilation ducts”, and another, infested with rats, as “sympathetic to the local ecosystem”. However, I no longer rely on estate agents for stimulus materials because I have some new toys. Stuffed to the seams with code, adverts for teaching jobs are my current favourites.

Pretty much all the schools I see advertising for staff have been found to be outstanding. This could point to several things. Perhaps ‘outstanding’ means something really obvious that I’ve only just twigged, like ‘standing outside’. Which lots of school buildings do, to be fair. Or perhaps outstanding schools tend to have higher staff turnovers: maybe, those working in outstanding schools develop professionally at such speed that they are ready to take on management posts within, ooh, minutes. Or, maybe, outstanding schools are horrible places in which to work, and tend to lose burnt-out staff like a haemophiliac loses blood. I know which one I’d go for.

So, now that there’s nowt outstanding about being outstanding, let’s turn to the other honeyed phrases with which schools try to lure applicants. Boasting about which percentile of the country’s ‘most improved’ they occupy seems to be the latest fad…and, encouragingly, they’re all way up near the top! Now, how did they get there, and what does it take to work in a school like that?

First up, make sure that you’re ‘data-driven’ as in “we are looking for a data-driven candidate who is also an outstanding teacher”. Blimey. You mean there are teachers out there making decisions on the basis of no info whatsoever? I made a point of learning the names of all my students (eventually). Does that make me data driven too? Probably not. It’s numbers they mean – hefty figures called targets that often bear little relation to the actual abilities of the students around whose necks they are hung. And, because they are The Law Before Which We All Genuflect, you, oh applicant, would do well to regard the students in your care as statistics unhappily trapped inside human bodies, and desperate to be liberated. So, cajole them, plead with them, bribe them and, if that fails, do the work for them. Anything less is, frankly, unprofessional and not what’s expected of a “team player”. You may not have known it, but you’ve been training for Mendacity United, and your call-up from the subs’ bench may be imminent.

The ads also tell us that many schools are on “a journey of year-on-year improvement”, so that en route at least 267.5% of their students will leave bearing teetering stacks of GCSEs. You can tell these places are on the move, because they always seem to be seeking candidates “willing to go the extra mile” (who knew that nomadism was so ‘in’ this season?). This is a little misleading. As you will discover, what with Oz always being a further mile away, you will have to (deep breath) cajole your students plead with them bribe them and if that fails do the work for them. Anything less is unprofessional. Plus, you did tell them that you’re a team player and you may have nodded eagerly when they spoke about their culture of “additionality” (eh?). Some schools, however, may be a little more blatant about their expectations, requiring candidates to do “whatever it takes” to ensure that The Law Before Which We All Genuflect is not broken.

So, finally, we come to my favourite: the school with a “no excuses culture”. I have no real idea what this means. For whom, pray, are there no excuses? I know that in some schools, students have no recourse to excuses – which is why one who had been thrown out of home and had been sleeping on park benches was excluded for missing an assignment deadline.  But staff may also have to abide by the new rules – perhaps in schools where there is no excuse not to cajolethempleadwiththembribethemandifthatfailsdotheworkforthem. Or, indeed, to simply cut out the middlemen and go straight to the ‘do the work for them’ bit. I’m still confused. Although I do understand that ‘no excuses’ is an excuse.

Anyhow, I no longer need worry about this stuff. Ascending to the deoxygenated heights of the upper pay scale banged some monster-sized nails into the coffin of my future employability; so I’m staying put where I am, until such time as it becomes intolerable, or I am deemed sackable. Whichever happens first. But for aspiring and viable employees, forewarned may be forearmed: dishonesty has been normalised in schools, so those of you able to turn a blind eye, swallow your moral qualms or perform other feats that will rearrange your organs are well-placed to thrive. Independent learning be hanged: guaranteed short cuts to fab grades are part of the cultural weft. I just wonder when the edges will start to fray.

Happy job-hunting.