The what and how of teacher talk

Shree Deepa

Language is a unique phenomenon that holds within itself immense potential. Very often we mindlessly use it in our lives without realizing what it does to the listener/reader. In the urgency to persuade or convince, mindlessness sets in stealthily and quickly without notice. Language in the discipline of linguistics is seen as many things, as a phonetic or phonological entity, as a morphological or syntactic entity, as a semantic tool and also as fulfilling a pragmatic function. We as teachers at the school level are more concerned about pronunciation, appropriate vocabulary, grammar and meaning making processes and we aim to teach all this as well as we can to our students. In the process we have to use language to teach language. During this teaching process we interact with our students in order to make them complete a task, a written composition or answer reading comprehension questions. Very often, we assume that as teachers we ‘know-it-all’ when compared to our students who are genuinely inexperienced in the ways of the adult world. This paradigm silences us when with some incidents language conspicuously fails us and stumps us. Such incidents must prod us to think deeper about the nature of this entity called ‘language’ and what it really is.

Let us look at a case (close to a real incident) story (with some details added) that happened to me when I was teaching English and science to class 2 in a reputed international school in Hyderabad, two decades or more ago.

It was a routine morning and after the morning prayer in the school assembly, the students strutted back into class and so did I. To my surprise I found Thushara (name changed) sitting unusually quiet in her seat, refusing to talk to any of her classmates. She was one of the ‘good’, ‘clever’, ‘intelligent’ girls in the class. I let her be for a few moments and then became impatient and tried to ‘drag’ her gently into the classroom proceedings. She even refused to look up from her desk full of books. She was thoroughly unresponsive and went back to her silence. At the same time, Jaikar (name changed) who was the ‘naughtiest’ was ‘jumpy’ as usual and was putting his hand up and begging to speak on everything; I had to keep him engaged so that he did not disturb the class. I gave him a written assignment to keep him busy. Thushara seemed busier than usual in her silence. When I walked up to her, I found that she was cutting her pinafore with really sharp scissors. I panicked and confronted this unusually silent, otherwise ‘brilliant’ child. I was scared that she would hurt herself or others in the class. I yanked the scissors from her and put it away while I was at my wits end as to what I was expected to do at this juncture. Just then Jaikar ran to me with open arms, hugged me and said Thushara “was sad, very sad and very, very sad.” I was still confused as Jaikar was this ‘know-it-all’ type of child and what and how could he know or care whether Thushara was sad or not!

At this point, as a teacher I had to take my class and also handle Thushara and Jaikar. I was more worried about how this incident would influence the whole class, what would the principal think of me as a teacher, and what was I supposed to do?

The options were aplenty in front of me. I could just continue the class as if nothing had happened. Or, I could take Thushara to task for cutting up her uniform and then give more work to Jaikar to keep him busy. Finally, I could plan my conversation with the principal or the parents if I was confronted.

I chose to find out the truth.

I asked Thushara for an explanation gently. She chose to reply with silence.

I gave in to Jaikar and asked him what the problem was. He signalled to me to come to a corner outside the classroom and then told me that Thushara’s parents had had a huge, loud fight the previous night and had decided to head for a divorce and that they were fighting for her custody the whole night and that was the reason for Thushara’s sadness. I was stumped and tears streamed down my face and I was thanking my presence of mind and the conscious decision I had made to not yell at either Thushara or Jaikar. I quietly asked how Jaikar knew about this; he told me that his aunt was Thushara’s neighbour and he had spent last night there. He had witnessed the whole incident and he confessed that when Thushara had stormed out of the house into Jaikar’s camp home, he had hugged her for comfort. I asked Jaikar to go back and sit in his place and gently reached out to Thushara and asked her if she was sad, to which she unflinchingly replied that if she could she would cut herself into two pieces and give each of her parents one part of herself and stop them from fighting over her. More tears streamed down my face which I hurriedly wiped, corrected my choked voice, gave some work to the rest of the class, put Jaikar in charge and took Thushara to the principal’s office with the hope of finding a temporary solution to end the girl’s misery.

Such exaggerated situations are many in a teacher’s life together with milder versions coming from each of the children in our classes. If we are willing to consider the fact that our students/children have a world of their own and a perceptive knowledge of this world, then we need to realize that this perspective may not match with our ‘rich’ experience as adults. All children are complete on their own and are not deficient in any way. We have to understand that we as language teachers are often engaged in exploring the teaching of language to such children as imparting or enhancing their language skills (LSRW), cap (abilities) of doing things in language in different contexts and using language to transact meaning from their perceptive positions for communicative purposes.

At the same time, we need to pause a bit here and reflect on language itself because harsh words hurt deeper than sharp swords. Words are a powerful tool and can often make or break a person. It is more so with children in their formative years, for they believe every word their caregiver or teacher says to them or about them. This indicates that language ought to be carefully used or handled.

Any language has the potential to be constructive, neutral or destructive. In other words, language can be used constructively, neutrally or may even be used for destructive purposes. Very often we tend to ignore this qualitative power of language and use it unconsciously, more so in unplanned speech incidents. The content being the same, there are three (or possibly more) clear ways of saying it. It is very important for a teacher to consciously choose the relevant potential that is embedded in any language that is used for communication. The default choice of potential must always be constructive, and when it fails one can move on to being neutral and when all options are exhausted one can resort either to silence or only when very clear choose the destructive potential in language. This applies to all communicative events in adult-adult and adult-child conversations irrespective of the contexts. We must also aim at teaching our children about this potentiality and more importantly, teach it to them as a conscious choice.

In class, whenever we encounter situations that demand our verbal response or response in action we have the choice to make it constructive, neutral or destructive for the child. We must consciously set our default to make it constructive and use language that will not cause any distress to the child but help the child perform better and be in accordance with his/her capabilities and capacities. Many times words that seem neutral to us may seem destructive to others. We usually associate the neutral potential as a replacement of truth or fact. For example, a teacher may find it easy to decipher and complete a task and indicate to the child that the ‘task is easy’ meaning that for her it is easy and expects it to be so for the child too, not realizing that this may not be the case. She can instead say, “Try out this activity and tell me what it is like for you.” If the student finds the activity difficult and indicates it, the teacher can use the constructive potential of language and say, “I understand it is difficult for you, let us see how we can make it easy for you,” instead of the destructive choice of, “Oh you will never learn! I am tired of repeating this for you!”

Looking back at the Thushara case story, I realize that other issues such as stereotyping and labelling, stealthily sneaked unconsciously into that event. Children do not know how to shrug off the labels that their teachers paste on them. For instance, if we label a child as ‘problematic’ (as I did Jaikar, though I never said it out loud), they start believing that is what they are and act accordingly. We can use this behaviour to our advantage and resort to labelling students constructively and positively and ensure that they believe in these labels and act them out. We could call them ‘capable’, ‘strong’, and ‘quick’ if we want these responses from them, instead of labelling them ‘useless’, ‘weak in maths’ or ‘slow learner.’ I am reminded of my maths teacher who told me in class 3 that I would never learn the multiplication tables and even as an adult I have not managed to conquer it. I regret the day I believed this maths teacher because I am terribly disabled in calculations to the extent that I thought I may have discalculia. We find such unconscious use of the destructive potential of language everywhere in school and outside. For example, a ‘fit’ physical education teacher might end up ‘motivating’ a big student towards ‘fitness or physical health’ by ‘putting sense’ or by ‘pushing’ him/her beyond visible capacities. Such situations can become breeding grounds of the destructive potential of language use unless conscious efforts are made to make it constructive. Instead of saying, “I know you can do it, just one more count, come on”, if this instructor says, “You cannot do another count you fatso!” it can implant serious body dysmorphic disorder in this child. The constructive potential of language therefore is the sweetest, most useful, workable and default setting of human language use. It aids in making someone’s day beautiful and reinstalling faith in them. I was an average student in school, but my biology teacher in class 8 saw that I was interested in animals and plants and changed the foundation of my studentship. Where all teachers had given up on making me write in cursive handwriting (as was the rule in convent schools in the 1980s), she gently came up to me as I stood for a caning session with the principal and whispered, “It pains to see my favourite student standing in this place waiting to be caned. Can you spare me the pain, next time?” This was enough for me to want to dismiss the pain from my teacher’s life. I taught myself cursive handwriting so that the principal would stop beating me. I fondly remember this incident even as a university teacher and a grandmother. Where the principal and her caning, yelling, whacking and hitting with dusters failed, a single sentence from my biology teacher succeeded.

So how do I know if I am using the constructive, neutral or destructive potentiality of language in my classroom? There are no straightforward answers to this question. However, there are certain things that we can do, for example record our sessions and ask a neutral friend to comment on them and give us feedback. Secondly, we can look at the body language of our students including their facial expressions and get a sense of the effect of our chosen potentiality on them. As a default, the chosen potential must always be constructive; only when it fails should we consider the other choices as a conscious phenomenon. This finally boils down to the kind of persons we are and the values we stand for. Next, we must never let anger, disgust, etc., overpower us, for such emotions have the natural tendency of producing destructive language. Another way would be to put up positive quotes on the board or charts on the classroom wall to remind us to be constructive. Last of all, whenever a situation offers us time to plan our response, we need to ruminate over all that we are going to say and most importantly how we are going to say what we want to say. There are no shortcuts nor are there quick-fixes to help us in this process. One rule of thumb that worked for me, may work for you in the form of this reiteration that you can give yourself through the following reminders.

  1. I shall speak unto students/others as I would like to be spoken to. [It is not enough if we say we are learner-centred, we must also be ‘listener-centred’ in our speech choices with the learners.]
  2. I shall not choose words that will cause stress to my students. [Our aim as teachers is to enable their growth – physical, cognitive and affective. As teachers that responsibility lies with us. Stressing out our students will only have the opposite effect. The process can be smooth when it is without stress.]
  3. I shall use the neutral potential of language before I choose the destructive. [We can give neutrality a trial and when that fails, we can pick up the destructive potential. Destruction must always be followed by construction. In other words, we see big buildings being dismantled/ destroyed, but then it is always done to construct a better structure. Similarly, rarely do we need to use the destructive potential of language but it becomes necessary in certain unavoidable contexts. In such cases the teacher must be with the students and enable them through the process or reconstruction. We should not destroy a person and walk away from them.]
  4. I shall consider saying the truth in a manner that will be constructive, empower students in their growth and the language used will be pleasing to them. [For further information on this do consult the Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 17, Verse 15, which briefly translates to “Use language to speak the truth in a way that is non-stressful and pleasing to others. Do not speak the truth in a destructive language and destroy others but enable and empower for the well-being of all creatures. Never resort to speaking untruth, even though it may sound pleasant.”]
  5. I shall reflect on the day’s language use in my class and try to understand the choices I have made. [Though this sounds undoable, it is not that difficult: a brief reflection everyday will help us traverse through the choices made on that particular day by raising awareness and our consciousness during the process and unravelling our linguistic choices. This process will enable us to plan our choices.]

The whole issue is that when we do realize that we have a choice of using the constructive potential of language to our maximum advantage, why should we shy away from using it? This is not to say that we heap undeserving praise or speak the untruth. We must speak the truth, but then we could say the truth in a manner that is not stressful to the individual and the truth must be embroidered in such a way that it does good to the students and not damage them for life. Life ahead will be more difficult for them. Let us not be the reason for their frown, let us be the reason for their smile.

The author is an associate professor in the Centre for English Language Studies, University of Hyderabad. She has been a school teacher in the earlier years of her career. Her current research interests include language potentiality, equitable, inclusive education, anthrogogicity, teacher education, materials development and testing. She supervises research in English language teaching and education. She can be reached at

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