Choice Words

Warning: this article contains language some may find offensive.

A referee in the English football Premier League was at the centre of a controversy recently because he has been accused of using a racist epithet – the word “monkey” – towards a Chelsea player of Nigerian origin. The referee strenuously denies the accusation. The club (whilst defending another player – its captain John Terry from a similar accusation)  pressed a complaint to the authorities about the referee. Then the Football Association, the Society of Black Lawyers and the Metropolitan Police are got involved…

The row seems to me ironic.

Referees are the objects of intense and obscene abuse from both spectators and players every week of the season in the Premier League yet few people seem to think this is an issue. Abusive language, however obscene and vitriolic, is apparently acceptable inside football grounds. Add a racist epithet – or even one that could be construed as racist – and we seem to enter a different arena.

Recently, one leading black Premiership player said he “didn’t mind being called a fucking cunt – that was just banter – but being called a fucking black cunt was of a different order and totally unacceptable.”

This reminds me of a time when a teacher colleague of mine was accused by a pupil of using a racist term of abuse similar to that alleged of the Premiership referee. The teacher had been chastising a boy’s poor behaviour in class and had said, “I’ve had enough of your monkey business” and sent him to the head teacher.

The boy was black and took offence. When he arrived at the head teacher’s office, he complained. He and his parents eventually got an apology from the teacher after the teacher acknowledged it was an unfortunate choice of words. The accusation, however well or ill-founded, served to conveniently deflect the matter of the boy’s own bad behavior, which had of course been the original, almost forgotten issue.

Personally, I did think it was an error of judgment to use such a phrase to a black child, even if it had been innocently made. In my view, the use of such a phrase has the potential to confuse or upset even the most angelic and innocent black child in the school.

However, I do think some children (though thankfully few of any race) will exploit self-serving opportunities to justify their bad behaviour and try to deflect responsibility for it away from themselves and on to others – sometimes that will include teachers. Goodness knows they do it often enough with each other in the playground: “She told me to do it!” “It wasn’t my fault!” “He cursed my mum, so I hit him!” etc etc.

In such circumstances, one might be tempted to confront a child’s hypocrisy, duplicity and false excuses and “to call a spade, a spade.”

My advice is: don’t.

At least not with that particular phrase, if they are black, or for that matter any other phrase that might be used to misconstrue your meaning.

Once in a moment of anger, I used a very ill-judged phrase to a pupil. I said: “Stop behaving like a complete prat!” The next day I had a burly parent in my classroom wanting to know why I had called his child “a complete twat!”

Don’t let a poor choice of words, especially ones spoken in a moment of anger, hand an easy advantage to people who may have an interest in diminishing your authority as a teacher. Goodness knows, it takes long enough to build it up in the first place.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

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