I’m sure my colleagues wince when I do it. ‘Mate’, that is.
To kids on the corridor: “Can you tuck your shirt in mate?”
To kids in my class: “Couldn’t hand the books out could you mate? Thanks.”
To kids I manage pastorally: “Mate, how have you been today?”
Even as I type the above examples, I’m uncomfortably aware of the disapproving shakes of the head that they will inspire. However, before you all make mental notes that read, ‘DO NOT EMPLOY THE MATEY BLOKE’, allow me, if you will, the opportunity to explain myself.
Although I have a creeping suspicion that I am now, due to the wonders of social mobility,’middle-class’, I like the idea that people might perceive me as working class. Although living 15 or so miles from central London, I came of age in a time and place where mockney ‘geezer’ culture was at an all time high. At eighteen years old I was calling – to my present embarrassment- girls, ‘birds’ and twenty pound notes, ‘scores.’ Polo shirts were always worn buttoned to the top and the only choice of trainer was a Reebok classic. I learned everything-lock, stock, and barrel- from Guy Ritchie.
For the most part, as time went on, I grew up. Misogynist nouns were shed and the etymology of rhyming slang became more interesting than using it. Five years went by and then, when I became a teacher, I made a conscious decision to re-introduce into my vernacular, some of the mockney colloquialisms I had once decided to outgrow.
So, now I reprimand students by snarling, “Don’t mug me off”. If I’m feeling particularly excited by a class discussion on the banquet scene in ‘Macbeth’ I’ll refer to Banquo as ‘brown bread’ (dead). And, if I’m in a really good mood, I’ll use ‘mate’ as a term of endearment to refer to a student. Why would I lower myself so? You want the honest answer? I do it because I think it makes male students like me and I do it because I think it will make male students more likely to do what I ask. And I think it works. In just a short time, I quickly became known as a teacher that is ‘good with the naughty ones’; in a relatively short space of time I have found myself being promoted into positions of authority where I am given responsibility in assisting in the reformation of students that display challenging behaviour. Like it or not, I strongly believe that my concious decision to ‘roughen up’ my speech has assisted with this.
But H-dropping, TH-fronting and T-glotalling has its problems. Loads of ’em. Here’s three that spring most immediately to mind:
- It makes students-and colleagues- think I’m stupid. One colleague once responded to my saying an FHM article was well written by saying, “You probably think it’s high art, knowing you.” She didn’t know me. More forgivably, a student (not an adult with a degree) asked me, “Why do you speak so stupidly when you write so wonderfully?”
- Students feel that me calling them, ‘mate’ means that they can call me the same. This has proved particularly awkward, especially as the students who call me ‘mate’, tend to be those students most desperate to please me. Telling them that it’s okay for me to call them mate, but not vice versa is a) awkward and b) makes me sound like a hypocritical prick.
- As whole-school literacy coordinator, it’s my job to ensure that students have high levels of written and spoken literacy. I constantly question myself: am I undermining all the other work I do in school to improve students’ spoken language.
So what do I do to counter these problems?
- I’m frank with students. I’ll tell them that I am mature enough to know how and when to adapt my speech and that they, probably aren’t. If they’re offended I’ll tell them about students (no names mentioned) who call me ‘mate’ in the corridor. Generally, I find they cringe as much as I do in the re-telling of this and they’re content, from that point on, to speak to me as is appropriate: ‘Sir’ rather than ‘mate.’
- I’m franker with students. I’ll tell them that I call them ‘mate’ because I want to appeal to them. I want them to like me and I want them to do what I want. I tell them I consciously put these colloquialisms into my classroom talk for these reasons. I believe that if they can see me making concious decisions about how to speak, they will think carefully about their own speech.
- I’ll tell students the problems (listed above) that speaking as I do can cause me as a professional. This interests them and again, it gets them thinking consciously about language.
- I speak in ‘high style’ far more often than ‘low.’ For every, ‘mate’ there’s the full name of a child. For every ‘brown bread’ there’s a ‘deceased.’ For every sentence that sounds like I’m gabbin’ with me mates in the boozer, there are ten more that sound like I’m writing a dissertation. I model exemplary speech.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.