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Performing discipline in UK primary school classrooms. Challenging essentialist beliefs about teacher gender

DOI: 10.4324/9781003159674-9
9 Performing discipline in UK
primary school classrooms.
Challenging essentialist
beliefs about teacher gender
Joanne McDowell
1. Introduction
Gender essentialism is the idea that men and women are essentially dif-
ferent because of the disparities between the two sexes (Humbert, van
den Brink, and Kelan 2018); that biological sex naturally determines the
intrinsic and unchangeable traits possessed by women and men (Rippon
2019). This principle is inaccurate and outdated and has led to discrimi-
natory attitudes, which is when essentialism becomes potentially damag-
ing. The view that women and men behave ‘dierently’ – due to their
biology – reflects a naturalist view, and a dangerous one. This is a salient,
political issue with global applicability across dierent geopolitical land-
scapes. The perception of ‘suitable’ behaviours for both sexes is often
subject to socio-cultural variation; this is dependent on geographical
location (Humbert, van den Brink, and Kelan 2018). What is globally
consistent is that gender politics is closely linked to cultural ideologies
(Moosa and Bhana 2017a). The dierent skills and characteristics attrib-
uted to men and women sustain the patriarchal status quo: that gender
inequality is ‘natural’, that men are natural leaders, and that women are
born followers (Rippon 2019). Such worldwide beliefs perpetuate occu-
pational segregation by sex, and gender inequalities within the work-
place. Because of gender stereotyping, men often report feeling deterred
from entering what society deems as ‘women’s work’ (discussed in Sec-
tion2). This trend is evident worldwide (McDowell, Lazzaro-Salazar, and
Marra 2020; McDowell 2018; Haines, Deaux, and Lofaro 2016; Moosa
and Bhana 2017b; Buschor etal. 2014; Cruickshank etal. 2018). Too
few men enter non-traditional areas of work due to essentialist gendered
beliefs, having internalised that such work is only suitable for those with
female characteristics. Attempts to address this reinforce stereotypes; a
gendered response to a shortage of men that seeks to carve a masculine
niche into such roles to make them more suitable. By promoting ‘mascu-
line’ characteristics, damaging stereotypes are advocated, and perpetu-
ated (see sections2.1 and 2.2).
170 Joanne McDowell
Such beliefs instead must be challenged if men and women are to be
successfully recruited into non-traditional work roles in greater numbers.
This chapter aims to tackle stereotypes of essential gendered behaviour
that have led to certain discriminatory beliefs about one gendered occu-
pation in particular: primary school teaching. It will outline key, empiri-
cal findings from applied, discursive analysis of male teachers’ classroom
discourse. This will shift how we think about the performance of this
profession as gendered; instead, to as it should be seen, as gender neutral.
Such research can help challenge persistent, gender essentialist beliefs
that lead to bias about certain jobs, and the type of people we believe
suitable to perform them (Cruickshank etal. 2018; Carli etal. 2016; Did-
ham 2015). We must address the damaging role that gender beliefs can
have in preventing equal representation for men in what is understood
to be ‘women’s’ work (Williams 1995), to tackle the gender imbalance
in primary schools that exists not only in the UK (outlined in Section2),
but elsewhere (e.g. in Australia, see McGrath and Van Bergen 2017; in
South Africa, see Bhana and Moosa 2016, Moosa and Bhana 2017a; in
Germany, see McDowell, Klattenberg, and Lenz 2020; and in Vietnam
see Nguyen 2020).
2. Essentialist perceptions about ‘gender-suitable’
The belief that gender derives from one’s biological sex, shaping a fixed
and inherent identity that controls how we speak and act, has led to
occupational segregation (amongst many other issues). In this, women
and men are deemed to be suitable for dierent types of work, based
inherently on their gender. Such assumptions – that men and women have
dierent skills, abilities, and preferences for work – exist on a global
scale (Humbert, van den Brink, and Kelan 2018; Huppatz and Goodwin
2013). These views are centred on cultural beliefs that women are car-
ers, and therefore put family life over work, or want to work within a
role that requires such traits. Men, in line with hegemonic masculine ide-
als, are ‘breadwinners’, with a need to gain status and financial security.
The concept of gendered occupations emerges from what are deemed as
‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ traits. So-called feminine workplaces are char-
acterised by stereotypical features of femininity (being caring, facilita-
tive, supportive). Supposed masculine workplaces are characterised by
hegemonic masculinity (aggressiveness, competitiveness, power, leader-
ship (Burke and Collins 2001; Litosseliti and Leadbeater 2020; Mistry
and Sood 2016).
Stereotypical ideals about who can perform certain work roles endure
because such views are so deeply entrenched around the world (Haines,
Deaux, and Lofaro 2016). Attempts have been made to increase the
representation of women in leadership roles by introducing targets and
Challenging beliefs about teacher gender 171
quotas. These repeatedly fail, however, as the traits ascribed to women
are not seen to be in line with what is considered to be a ‘leadership’
standard (see Humbert, van den Brink, and Kelan 2018). Similar issues
are evident regarding men’s entry into occupations traditionally asso-
ciated with women; quotas are not being met. The interpretation of a
‘global’ workplace in this current chapter is one that is found across
the world: the primary school classroom is such a place. There exists
an issue, here, that has global applicability: the shortage of men in this
teaching role. This is an issue made even more prominent by the impact
of the COVID-19 pandemic. Numerical variation exists across geograph-
ical location, certainly, but most countries share the commonality of a
lack of male primary school teachers (Nguyen 2020; McDowell, Klat-
tenberg, and Lenz 2020; McGrath and van Bergen 2017). Primary school
teaching is strongly associated with a nurturing role, and with providing
pastoral and physical care to young children (Bullough 2015). Rarely are
these seen as masculine traits. Such generalised assumptions, based on
cultural constructions of gender, have damaging, global consequences of
gender bias (Basow and Rubenfeld 2003; Mistry and Sood 2016). Even
with frequent government initiatives to recruit men, their numbers in pri-
mary schools are not increasing. Male teachers are still viewed as ‘freaks’
(Warwick, Warwick, and Hopper 2012). In certain countries, such as
Australia and South Africa, the number of men taking up teaching roles
is declining (see McGrath and Van Bergen 2017).
One potential reason for (and problem with) this current situation is
that people bond with those that are most like them: we are naturally
drawn to those who are the same (Rippon 2019). Therefore, men in pow-
erful roles often recruit other men, as they are seen to share the same
traits, and so be seen as more suitable for the role (this occurs at the
expense of women, who are viewed as dierent to men, and more family-
orientated [Humbert, van den Brink, and Kelan 2018]). Something simi-
lar happens when young boys see only women in teaching roles. Boys
learn through this experience that teaching is a role that is not suitable
for men. Conversely, young girls learn it is a job type most appropri-
ate for them (one revolving around caring and communication). It is,
therefore, imperative that the gender balance of teachers reflect society
to teach young children that men have the traits to perform these roles
(see Moosa and Bhana 2017b for a discussion of reducing gender-based
violence against women in South Africa).
2.1 Teacher gender in the UK primary school: why so
In the UK, 85percent of registered primary school teachers are women
(Department of Education 2020). This makes the very small proportion
of primary schools in which male teachers are present important foci
172 Joanne McDowell
for study. The UK government, primary schools, and Initial Teacher
Education hubs have attempted to recruit more men into the occupa-
tion through various initiatives (Cruickshank etal. 2018). However, men
are still not entering these professions in sucient numbers since these
initiatives began (Thornton and Bricheno 2006). This, coupled with a
high male teacher-trainee attrition rate, means that there remains a ‘huge
gender imbalance’ across teaching sta (Mistry and Sood 2016, 283).
One possible barrier is that such initiatives are attempting to attract men
by promoting apparently ‘hegemonic masculine’ aspects of the role. For
example, they refer to the commonly held beliefs that men are needed to
prescribe ‘hard’ discipline (e.g. giving direct and aggressive orders, [see
Read 2008]); to be an authoritative male role model; and to forge posi-
tive relationships with boys to get them better engaged in their schooling
(Spilt, Koomen, and Jak 2012).
Amongst teachers, classroom management issues are generally regarded
as problematic since pupils who are disruptive in class can damage the
learning environment for their peers. This has led to classroom man-
agement being perceived as one of the greatest challenges for teachers
from many countries; said challenges presenting some of the main causes
of job dissatisfaction (Klattenberg 2020). How teachers are thought to
react to, and discipline violations of permitted classroom behaviour (e.g.
a student calling out without raising their hand) has often been incor-
rectly indexed by teacher gender due to the essentialist beliefs previously
discussed. Higher numbers of female teachers are said to have led to
a softer, ‘liberal’ style of classroom discipline (e.g. the use of mitigated
directives and criticism, [see Read 2008]). This has, apparently, led to the
underachievement of boys in the classroom. As a result, more men are
thought to be needed to provide ‘hard’ discipline to perform classroom
management, to improve boys’ academic engagement (see McDowell,
Klattenberg, and Lenz 2020). In carving out a masculine niche for men
in this field in an attempt to make the job ‘more suitable’, schools, ini-
tiatives and policy makers have increasingly pushed the discourse that
men are needed because boys need a ‘male’ role model (Skelton 2003).
This follows the (arguably) global rhetoric of ‘think manager, think male’
(Schein etal. 1996, 33). This is based on dangerous, gendered beliefs,
and not fact (see Ankers de Salis et al.’s 2019 discussion on whether men
make better teachers of boys than women).
This persistent idea that women are not capable of ‘hard’ class-
room management only perpetuates harmful, gendered stereotypes,
that women do not possess the speaking rights and control needed to
hold power in their classroom, and that they cannot adequately con-
trol male pupils (Read 2008). It also perpetuates stereotypical ways
of thinking about classroom management and discipline; that it must
be direct and aggressive (i.e., indexed as masculine), to be successful.
In fact, such discipline strategies have been shown to damage positive
Challenging beliefs about teacher gender 173
teacher–learner relationships (see Carrington, Tymms, and Merrell 2008 for
an example).
As Humbert, Van Brink, and Kelan (2018) argue, it is when essentialist
gender beliefs lead to discriminatory attitudes that they become a prob-
lem. Male teachers often self-report that their school’s expectations of
them to fulfil hegemonic, masculine roles made them extremely unhappy
and uncomfortable (see Sargent 2000; Skelton 2003). In various geopo-
litical contexts, this accounts for the high attrition rate of male teacher
trainees and teachers. For example, Jones’ (2004) research reports on
male teachers who are not allowed to hug their pupils, and Cushman
(2010) that male teachers are required to fulfil stereotypical, male roles
to the extent that in primary schools this is detrimental to teaching pupils
about gender equality. Instead, Cushman (2010) argues this behaviour
reinforces gendered beliefs of role performance in young people. The
implication sustains that men bring something to the profession that
women simply cannot oer (supporting essentialist gendered beliefs that
men and women will bring dierent skills to the job); but also, that they
are not capable of giving care, and nurture, as these are not hegemonic,
masculine characteristics (MacDougall 1997). Such assumptions rein-
force damaging stereotypes.
2.2 What is ‘being a teacher’ in the classroom?
To perform a teaching role, teachers must combine transactional goals
(e.g. teaching instruction and classroom management) and relational
goals (e.g. creating a harmonious, friendly, and supportive class environ-
ment; fostering good teacher–pupil relations). Teachers must make deci-
sions and perform classroom management, managing conflict and bad
behaviour. They must often react to bad behaviour by disciplining stu-
dents (Klattenberg 2020). In this current chapter, discipline is defined fol-
lowing Margutti and Piirainen-Marsh (2011, 305), as ‘activities through
which teachers and students address some forms of conduct as unaccep-
table, criticisable or reproachable’.
The interrelationship between sex and gender means that men are
often thought to speak in masculine ways and women feminine (Basow
and Rubenfeld 2003). Indeed, men are expected to use language to exert
their social dominance in interaction. Yet to what extent can classroom
management through discipline strategies really be classed as feminine or
masculine? Generalising about all men and women has reinforced gender
dichotomies and strengthened sex-role stereotypes. This has allowed for
the simplification and reduction of a group of people’s behaviours and
created an ‘imagined community’ (Talbot 2003, 70). This is where essen-
tialist gender stereotypes are prevalent; the belief that men are needed to
perform ‘hard’ discipline and women can only display ‘soft’ discipline
(see Read 2008 for an in-depth discussion of discipline). One way to
174 Joanne McDowell
change societies’ perceptions of primary teaching is through an explora-
tion of how the job is discursively performed rather than simply assum-
ing that teachers will perform it dierently because of their gender.
3. Methods
Applying a qualitative, discourse-analytical approach to examine real-
life classroom discourse, this chapter examines how male primary school
teachers respond to important issues of discipline, decision-making and
leadership. This research adopts Interactional Sociolinguistic theory (IS),
which entails a detailed analysis of the language strategies employed in
the context and situation in which they take place. It is important to
study the practices used in the classroom to reposition generalisations
regarding language and gender ‘away from properties that women and
men might have, toward their social practices and social relations’ (Eck-
ert and McConnell-Ginet 1999, 198). Freed (2003) stressed the need to
examine how people communicate using the linguistic resources avail-
able to them in each specific context. This is because language is embed-
ded in social practice, which aects the choices we make (Eckert and
McConnell-Ginet 2003). Numerous studies have disagreed on the extent
to which an examination of linguistic features and language styles should
be gender-based and separate from ‘their full conversational and com-
municative contexts’ (Freed and Greenwood 1996, 2). Where the essen-
tialist approach has categorised speakers according to biological sex and
assigned certain discourse markers accordingly, social constructionists
acknowledge the eect of the specific contexts, and the various factors
that may contribute to the performance of one’s identity (Eckert and
McConnell-Ginet 1999, 2003; West and Fenstermaker 1995).
3.1 Data
Fieldwork was conducted in 3 co-educational primary schools in Hert-
fordshire, UK, which were primarily selected because they had male
teachers, resulting in a case study of 12 teacher participants, 6 men and 6
women. All teachers were white, and British. This is not a representative
sample of gender, social class or race, and cannot provide insights into
intersectionality, but is sucient for a qualitative, exploratory case study,
and provides a substantial database of classroom interaction. Data was
collected by the author and consists of two, full schooldays of both video
and audio recordings per teacher, resulting in approximately 120hours of
classroom discourse which was then transcribed and coded using NVivo
as a data management tool. Video recordings were employed to aid the
transcription as these allowed the identification of the pupils when they
interacted with the teacher. These also provided evidence of important,
non-linguistic behaviour such as body language, aiding data analysis.
Challenging beliefs about teacher gender 175
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with each teacher to gather
background knowledge.
There are a small number of studies that have demonstrated that female
teachers do in fact employ a ‘hard’ discipline style in their classroom (see
McDowell and Klattenberg 2018; Read 2008 for examples) there has
been far less exploration of male teachers’ linguistic behaviour. While
data from female teachers was also collected, this chapter only focuses on
that gathered from male teachers.
3.2 Data analysis
For an initial identification of instances of classroom discipline, Lewis’
disciplining taxonomy was deployed.
Table 9.1 Types of Primary School Discipline Strategies (adapted from Lewis
2001; Lewis etal. 2005)
Discipline Strategy Description
Student Involvement in
discipline decisions Encourage the class determine what is good
behaviour and involve them in creating and
determining the discipline process, so the students
understand that their behaviour is not what the
other students expect.
Talking with students Discuss and explain the students’ bad behaviour
and the impact that it has on others, so they are
encouraged to change.
Recognition and
Rewards Recognise and reward the students who behave
Praise students.
Reward class when everyone is behaving.
Hinting Non-directional description of bad behaviour so that
students self-regulate (ask questions, describe bad
behaviour, remind students about classroom rules).
Punishment Applying consequences to misbehaving students
and increasing the level of punishment if students
continue to misbehave (move seats, give detention).
Aggression Legal aggressive techniques including shouting or
yelling angrily, keeping the entire class in over
break/lunch time because of disruptive students,
using sarcasm, deliberate embarrassment of pupil in
front of the class.
The data was initially analysed and coded into the various discipline
strategies noted in Table9.1. Then, classification from Read’s (2008) dis-
cussion of ‘disciplinarian’ (hard) discipline (which is unmitigated orders
and criticism) and ‘liberal’ (soft) discipline (which is mitigated, softened
commands and criticisms) was adopted to further classify discipline
176 Joanne McDowell
types. To do this, the linguistic strategies used to carry out the type of
discipline were examined in more detail by using frameworks frequently
adopted within Interactional Sociolinguistics. These were Coates’ (1996)
taxonomy on collaboration and mitigation, Holmes’ (1982, 1990, 1995)
frameworks on tag questions, hedging and politeness, and Brown and
Levinson’s (1987) politeness model. These frameworks were chosen as
they are well established and frequently used to categorise linguistic fea-
tures and their functions including unmitigated declaratives, orders, and
criticism, which are frequently culturally associated with masculinity
(Mills and Mullany 2011). Whereas mitigation through hedging, mini-
misers, use of the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ to include oneself in the instruc-
tion or order, speaker collaboration, minimal responses, inclusive address
terms, and the use of facilitating tag questions tend to be associated with
femininity (Cameron 2007). As recommended by Holmes (Holmes 2014,
182) to check the data analysis and interpretation, data was presented at
both linguistic and education conferences and discussed with other prom-
inent researchers. Moreover, four workshops were held with education
practitioners, and over 50 data extracts were discussed to check inter-
pretation, the analysis of which was very well-received and agreed upon.
Sociolinguists have progressed from the examination and explanation
of so-called gender dierences to take account of the context when exam-
ining men and women’s speech in scholarly discourse. However, terms
such as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ speech are still used, despite acceptance
that gender can be placed on a spectrum. This is problematic, as there
remains an ideology of split-discourse styles explicitly seen through the
terminology of discussing such language. As no other terminology yet
exists, however, the author has to this point used the terms ‘masculine’ or
‘feminine’ in this chapter. In the remainder of this chapter, however, more
descriptive labels for teachers’ style and strategies, which do not draw on
limiting gender norms and stereotypes, will be used. Finally, to re-frame
gender norms, an alternative form of expression is oered in this chapter’s
conclusion: the suggestion that we remove such terminology altogether
and instead discuss the language used as indexical of the profession. This
chapter adheres to the premise that teachers will use all types of linguistic
strategies regardless of their gender and provides further support for this.
4. Analysis and discussion
The extracts in this section present insights from the data to demonstrate
how men perform classroom management.
4.1 Male teachers utilising ‘soft’ discipline styles
This section presents evidence of male teachers using what has been
termed ‘soft’ (liberal, mitigated) discipline (Read 2008). They made use
of positive sanctions to motivate and encourage students to work when
Challenging beliefs about teacher gender 177
they were misbehaving, such as giving out rewards and giving positive
encouragement and praise (Lewis 2001; Lewis et al. 2005). Linguistic
strategies employed to mitigate this type of discipline included hedging,
minimisers, the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ to include oneself in the instruc-
tion or order, collaboration, minimal responses, inclusive address terms
and facilitating tag questions (Holmes 2006).
Extract 1 demonstrates a teacher (who works with the youngest group
of pupils) encouraging a male pupil to engage in his work:
Extract 1 (Children are in Year 1)
1. {Adam is lying flat on the floor}
2. Stephen: Adam (.) Adam can you come over here please/
4. Stephen: Adam (.) Adam Ithink I’m not going to be asking anymore
because we’ve got work to do alright/
6. Stephen: okay you can join in with this work or you can sit there and
lose your reward
Here, Stephen begins by directly calling the student by name to get his
attention and then mitigates his instruction with the modal verb ‘can’ in
line 2. So rather than directly order Adam over, he phrases this as an inter-
rogative. When Adam ignores him, Stephen attempts again with a more
direct statement, but we still see mitigation with the hedge ‘I think’: ‘I
think I’m not going to be asking anymore’, which he then immediately sof-
tens with a reason for his request ‘because we’ve got work to do ‘alright’
in lines 3–4. Giving a reason for his request is an attempt at hinting (Lewis
2001), reminding Adam of the classroom rules and expected behaviour.
He uses the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ to include himself in his instruction to
minimise its threat, ‘we’ve got work to do’, showing downward mitigation
(Holmes 2006). In fact, whilst teaching, Stephen often used ‘we’ to refer
to himself as part of the pupil group, especially when pupils approached
him when he was working with others (i.e., ‘we are busy working’). He
ends his request with the tag question ‘alright’ which acts as a preventa-
tive measure by making it clear what he expects from Adam and check-
ing his understanding. In line 5, Stephen begins with the frame ‘okay’
to reinstate the rule, before giving a caution followed by the threat of
privilege removal. This may seem tough, but the entire threat is mitigated
to allow the student to choose the positive option (joining the teacher)
seen through the verb phrase ‘you can’. Such skills allow the teacher to
motivate and encourage the pupils. Throughout this extract we see the
teacher employ several strategies using a mix of reorientation and reactive
discipline alongside hinting and minor threat of punishment (lines 5–6).
Along with mitigation, teachers made use of positive reinforcement
during periods of discipline (e.g. gaining reward points; getting rewards).
Extract 2 demonstrates the teacher, Stephen, using such strategies to per-
form both transactional and relational work with his pupils.
178 Joanne McDowell
Extract 2 (Children are in Year 1)
Stephen: You’ve lost your sticker and in fact you can earn that sticker
back if you do good work (.) look at how many words Michael has
written already AND Adam (.) in fact all of purple group well done
Jack: <?>
Stephen: no don’t take a board use a piece of paper everybody else is
doing their work that’s brilliant keep going okay/ I’m going to get
you all money in the reward bank if you keep going
Stephen utilises the rewards and recognition strategy several times here
(Lewis 2001). He begins by reminding Jack that he can ‘earn’ his sticker
back (which was lost early in the day due to bad behaviour) if he per-
forms well. This mitigates the earlier punishment as well as providing an
incentive for Jack to work harder (Lewis etal. 2005). Stephen praises the
other pupils who are performing well (lines 2–3) to encourage Jack to
stop misbehaving and carry on with his writing. We see further evidence
of this in lines 6–7, where he praises Jack for starting his work, which
is then mitigated with the invariant tag question ‘okay’ to attenuate the
force of the order (Holmes 1982). He then oers the positive sanction of
‘all the money in the reward bank’ in lines 6–7 if Jack keeps going with
his work (the ‘reward bank’ is a jar of sweets). His praise in line 3 also
acts to provide motivation and encouragement to the other pupils who
are doing their work. In doing so, he creates a friendly and supportive
classroom to improve motivation and learning, commitment, and partici-
pation when the children are performing transactional tasks.
Teachers often used linguistic strategies to attenuate the force of their
utterance to show concern for their pupils’ faces when performing dis-
cipline. In extract 3, the teacher Keith makes a joke, which itself is a
positive politeness strategy as using humour is an eective bonding tool
(Brown and Levinson 1987) often used to perform relational practice
(Fletcher 2018). However, this then causes the other pupils to get over-
excited and despite trying to carry on with his transactional instructions,
Keith must stop teaching to gain back control of his class:
Extract 3 (Children are in Year 6)
2. Keith: tis the lesson to be happy
{Children laugh persistently}
Keith: no you’ve got to say what you’ve learned ERR wow hang on
hang on I’m losing your attention and that’s not the point of this (1.)
the point is (1.) the vehicle is a text message and that’s meant to make
it fun but
you still need to share your learning alright/
7. Mohammed: oh
8. Keith: okay/ {child nods yes} Good, super stu.
Challenging beliefs about teacher gender 179
Keith reminds his pupils about the point of the lesson, that yes learning
should be fun (line 5), but they still must be engaging in the work, learn-
ing and sharing their learning with their peers. He uses slang to reduce the
force of his utterance in lines 3–4 ‘hang on hang on’ rather than directly
ordering them to be quiet or to stop what they are doing. He then explains
why he has stopped them in line 4, before re-explaining the transactional
work they need to do in lines 5–6. The invariant tag ‘alright’ at the end
of line 6 (Holmes 1982) turns his statement into a request by asking the
students if they understand his instructions and acknowledge what they
must do besides have fun with the task. This is further reinforced in line 8
with the question ‘okay’. On getting agreement from one pupil that was
extremely over-excited, Keith delivers praise in line 8 to give positive
reinforcement and encouragement (Lewis 2001).
Ben, in extracts 4 and 5, consistently uses strategies to perform ‘soft’
discipline work. In extract 4, Ben is teaching French, but cannot get one
pupil to engage. He stops teaching the class and directly addresses the
student by name (line 1), but he does not do this in a threatening manner.
Nor is this an attempt to deliberately embarrass the student evident by
the mitigation employed:
Extract 4 (Children are in Year 6)
1. Ben: /j’ai dix ans/ Christopher Ineed you to do the actions as well stop
2. fiddling with your shoes just poppet there we go
3. Ben: quel âge as-tu/
4. Boy and Girl in unison: j’ai onze ans
Ben: Iknow people find this hard but you know there’s no slumping
on the desk picking chatting and being silly is sort of no excuse
really is it/
Ben explains his expectations to the student to get them to perform the
task and directs him to ‘stop fiddling with his shoes’. He attenuates this
directive with the minimiser ‘just’ before referring to the pupil fondly as
‘poppet’ (line 2). This is a term of endearment in the UK and an inclusive
address term that softens the force of the directive (Brown and Levinson
1987) that, in this case, is used to show politeness to the pupil. Using
such inclusive address terms allows Ben to keep a cohesive link with his
pupils, reducing the teacher–pupil hierarchy by demonstrating solidarity.
He attempts to carry on teaching, but some children are being disruptive,
so once more he stops his transactional talk teaching French. So, again,
Ben must ask the children to be quiet and to pay attention. However,
he does not do this directly, nor aggressively. Ben mitigates his hinting
strategy in lines 5 and 6. This hinting aims to remind students of the
classroom rules; sit up straight and pay attention. He also provides a
180 Joanne McDowell
reasoning of sorts for their misbehaviour here: ‘I know people find this
hard’. Once again, he gently reminds his pupils that this conduct is not
acceptable (Lewis 2001) and hints to them the classroom rules in lines 5–6
hedging using discourse markers ‘sort of’ and ‘you know’ to minimise the
force of his utterance (Holmes 1990).
We see Ben using inclusive address terms (Brown and Levinson 1987)
in lines 1 and 3 of extract 5, referring to his students as ‘guys’. He softens
with the modal verb ‘can’ which means he uses an interrogative rather
than an imperative and repeats ‘please’ twice in this instruction:
Extract 5 (Children are in Year 6)
2. Ben: okay guys can Iask you to please go to your erm literacy places
please {children move noisily}
Ben: shh shh shh (.) guys (.) we are going to have to be really quiet
today because we we’ve got erm (1.) we’ve got SAT’s happening
throughout the school {children quiet down a little but are still a bit
Ben: so we are going to do so what we are going to first of all
what we are going to have a look at today is shh shh we’ve got to
be really quiet today because we don’t want to get in trouble for
making noise now over the course of the next two weeks sure
we don’t\
A strategy frequently deployed throughout this sequence is the use of
the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ (Holmes 2006), where Ben is including him-
self in every instruction that he gives to his pupils from lines 3–9, a total
of 10 times. He explains to the pupils why they must be quiet to provide a
justification for his request (Holmes and Stubbe 2015). Instead of directly
telling the pupils to stop talking, he uses the more informal and friendly
‘shh shh’ in lines 3 and 7. Ben’s filled pauses ‘erm’ (lines 1 and 4), restarts
and repetition (lines 6–7) and recycled turn ‘sure we don’t’ are all strate-
gies that act to attenuate the force of requests to create a feeling of group
cohesion and collaboration (Schnurr 2013).
Extract 6 demonstrates the teacher Matt using positive reinforcement
for students who had written their homework well, and mitigated criti-
cism for those who had not:
Extract 6 (Children are in Year 7)
2. Matt: you haven’t got a partner that doesn’t matter you just need to
sit on the floor on your bottom please (1.) that is all Iask of you
{pupils settle}
Challenging beliefs about teacher gender 181
Matt: alright Ihave got a few people that Ineed to see later about
their stories Iam not massively impressed by some people (.) some
people already know who they are okay (.) but there’s some really
REALLY scruy work (.) some people have taken a great amount
of pride in their work (1.) and those people know who they are (.)
whereas OTHER people are do you know what some of it there
was almost GRAFFITI in some of the books (.) and that’s really
upsetting and we are going to have words about that because I’m
a little bit annoyed (3.) these books are a record of all the fantastic
work you have done and then to RUIN it really let’s be honest with
grati (.) I’m NOT massively impressed (.) AT ALL (1.) so some
there are house points(.) in fact house points galore and for others
(1.) it’s going to be a bit of a telling o (2.) alright/ {Pupils nod}
16. Matt: cool (.) right let’s get that sorted (5.)
Matt: alright okay guys erm (1.) alright what we are going to do in
a bit is we are going to get into our places and we are going to go
back through our stories (1.) some of us are going to spend a bit
of time writing them yeah/ SOME OF US are going to improve our
handwriting (.) because it’s a bit scruy hmm yeah/
In this extract, Matt is explaining to the pupils that their stories were
written in poor handwriting. Before expressing his disappointment in
more detail, Matt positively acknowledges those students who had done
well giving them praise and recognition in lines 6–7 (Lewis 2001). When
expressing his emotion, he minimises his criticism and threat of the forth-
coming sanctions with hedges in line 11 ‘a little bit’; and line 15 ‘a bit
of a’ (Holmes 1995; Coates 1996). He then goes back to rewarding and
recognising the students who had done well with the promise of ‘house
points galore’ as a means of encouragement and motivation, but also
as a recognition of academic achievement. He completes this element
of discipline with the invariant tag ‘alright’ which acts as a check that
the students understand what he has just outlined. But it also acts as a
means of hedging the force of his previous utterance (Holmes 1982). This
deployment of mitigation is a face-saving strategy (Brown and Levinson
1987) that allows the teacher to reduce the level of criticism and there-
fore the embarrassment of having done poor work which is important
for student motivation and participation (Cullen 2002). Being critiqued
openly in class may be extremely damaging to a student’s motivation and
engagement. So, Matt critiques the group rather than single out individu-
als. This discipline style carries on into his next initiation sequence. His
use of the slang term ‘cool’ and collaborative ‘let’s’ in line 16, followed
by his use of inclusive address markers ‘guys’ in line 17 and repeated
use of the ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ to include himself in his own transactional
instructions (lines 17–20) all function to downplay his status and power
(Holmes and Stubbe 2015) to maintain a sense of group cohesion and
solidarity between himself and his pupils.
182 Joanne McDowell
5. Conclusion
Essentialist gendered viewpoints often lead to discriminatory gender poli-
tics and this occurs across dierent geopolitical landscapes (Humbert,
van den Brink, and Kelan 2018). Gender is therefore a major cause of
segregation, excluding the ‘other’ from work roles seen not to be suit-
able. Damaging beliefs that men cannot deliver pastoral care to their
pupils or demonstrate any caring traits at all (MacDougall 1997) means
they are often in demand to become teachers only due to the ‘masculine’
traits they can supposedly bring to the job (which also perpetuates that
women do not possess such traits), as evident in the worldwide initiatives
that attempt to attract men to the role (Buschor etal. 2014; Cruickshank
etal. 2018; Skelton 2009).
To tackle this, we therefore must make visible these gendered beliefs
and how they manifest themselves in social practices around the world.
The notion that women and men are simply ‘naturally’ dierent, is key to
men’s lack of visibility in this occupation. Changing this mindset within
societies is crucial; and providing evidence as to how the job is actually
performed, rather than focusing on essentialist gender beliefs of what is
thought about teacher performance, is paramount. This chapter ques-
tioned whether gendered stereotypes are truly applicable to how class-
room management/discipline is linguistically performed in the primary
school classroom. The focus here was on participants as teachers and
their use of styles and strategies that are appropriate for their context
and for their pupils as individual learners. Women and men have a wide
range of communicative skills in their linguistic arsenal. So, as compe-
tent teachers, they need to use whichever style is required to perform the
role (for similar research see Nguyen 2020; McDowell, Klattenberg, and
Lenz 2020; McDowell 2019). Numerous factors can influence a teacher’s
style including the age of the pupil, the training the teacher has had, and
the relationship they have with each pupil. Therefore, each teacher’s lin-
guistic performance is determined by their workplace culture, with the
linguistic repertoire of their setting having influence on their linguistic
We must increase public awareness that the speech style of performing
this role is not linked to gender, but to the environment (Marra, Schnurr,
and Holmes 2006; Powell, Bagilhole, and Dainty 2009). Teachers ori-
ent the community in which they belong (Wenger 1998); that of being
a primary school teacher. The discursive behaviour of these teachers
should therefore be thought of in the general public as the discourse of
‘doing “being” a teacher’ to move away from persistent gender norms
to de- gender this job to recruit more men. Re-interpreting language use
as reflecting professional identity has important implications for other
geopolitical contexts, too. For example, Bhana and Moosa’s (2016)
work in South Africa discusses that, in their culture, women often face
Challenging beliefs about teacher gender 183
gender-based violence, so showing young boys that men too can make
caring and compassionate teachers, would be an invaluable aid to chang-
ing the cultural mindset of how men can behave. To explore this and
other political issues across the globe, further research in this area would
involve additional data collection from a wider range of geopolitical con-
texts to investigate if these current findings are replicated and to allow for
the consideration of intersectionality.
Transcription conventions
\ Falling intonation
/ Rising intonation
<?> Indecipherable speech
WORD Loud/raised voice/Stressed word
(.) Very brief pause
(1.) Longer pause with length in seconds
{} Paralanguage or transcriptionist comment
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