Rewriting the Dictionary

August 30, 2008

“Well then I think we are all agreed as to what a teacake is. What’s the next word, Jessop?”

“It’s ‘teach’, sir. In our last edition we defined it as `give systematic information to (a person) or about (a subject or skill)’. However, we define a `teacher’ as ‘somebody who teaches, especially in a school’ and, as I was a teacher before I became a lexicographer’s assistant, I can’t help but notice that, as a teacher, I was never expected to give systematic information”

Were you not? Do teachers not do that these days?”

“Well, some do, sir, but generally speaking it’s frowned upon. Children aren’t really meant to be informed anymore, they should be finding things out for themselves and thinking about open ended questions. The general feeling is that they shouldn’t be bogged down with lots of useless knowledge that they could look up on the internet if they ever needed it.”

“Are they instructed in how to discover things for themselves? Could we say that teaching is `systematic instruction’?”

“Again, I’m sure some teachers do instruct but it is frowned upon. Students don’t really have to follow instructions any more. They are meant to be self-directed.”

If teachers aren’t meant to give information and aren’t able to make students find out information for themselves, then what are they meant to do, how are they meant to learn?”

The teacher is meant to entertain them.”

“But if a teacher can’t tell them entertaining information or make them do entertaining things, how is the teacher meant to entertain them?”

“Well by getting to know them, building a relationship.”

“This is all very vague, Jessop. They aren’t parenting the children, they aren’t instructing them. What sort of relationship is this?”

“One based on personality, I guess. Teachers are responsible for children’s emotional well-being”

“Emotional well-being?”

“Happiness. Teachers should be cheering children up. Making them smile.”

Oh, I see. Humorous entertainment, Jessop. So could we say that to teach is to be systematically entertaining in a humorous way?”

“Teachers aren’t really meant to be systematic anymore. They are meant to fit their teaching to individual pupils instead of following a rigid style.”

“Could we say teaching is being humorously entertaining about a subject, then?”

“Actually, the last I heard was that teachers were meant to see themselves as teaching children not subjects. Traditional subjects are seen as artificial.”

“I see. So to `teach’ is to ‘humorously entertain children’?”

I guess so, sir.

“It all seems very odd to me. But I guess it will have to do. What’s the next word?”

“It’s `teacher`”

“So, Jessop, can we say a teacher is `a person employed to humorously entertain children?’”

“I think so. Hang on, sir, just one slight problem.”

“Yes, Jessop?”

“We’ve already used that as our definition of `clown’.”



  1. Beautifully sarcastic and worryingly accurate. The list of things that we are now expected to do/provide for the students in front of us continues to be distorted and abused. The job is changing for the worse, in my opinion.

  2. Excellent piece of writing.

    But when exactly did this come about? I left school in 1998 having enjoyed it for the most part. We learnt and behaved and respected/even liked the teachers. I have never been in a classroom as a pupil and had someone else say, “but you don’t entertain us sir.” (like i had last year on numerous occassions from all years in my second year of teaching). Again i have never been in classroom as a pupil and had
    1. someone throw something
    2. someone speak to the teacher about social things – i still can’t get my head round why you want to talk to teacher (you would have been bullied when i was at school).
    3. swear at teacher – absolutely unthinkable, it just wouldn’t have happened.
    By the way i only went to the bog standard comp down the road from my house.

  3. May I hang this one on the staffroom wall? It would cheer up the workforce who’ve just been told it’s their own fault that the school is on the LEA’s hitlist for closure for failing not only to get its grades up to 30% but actually being the cause of a 1% drop on last year’s.

  4. Your post would be hysterical if it weren’t so blasted accurate. If I have one more “education expert” tell me that we have to capture kids hearts before we “capture their minds” I think I’ll run off and join the Ringling Brothers Circus. At least then I would get to travel. Great post.

  5. “May I hang this one on the staffroom wall?”

    Go ahead, as long as you say where it’s from.

  6. “Teachers aren’t really meant to be systematic anymore. They are meant to fit their teaching to individual pupils instead of following a rigid style.”
    “Could we say teaching is being humorously entertaining about a subject, then?”

    1) These two points don’t follow each other. If you are a bespoke tailor, your job does not change from “producing suits in set sizes” to “entertaining buyers with clown clothes”.
    2) Fitting your teaching to individuals does not mean it is not systematic. Using a bespoke tailor again, is such a profession not systematic in how it works?

    While I appreciate that poor management can claim that you should control kids by being entertaining and uneducational, it is obviously not true that differentiation in learning has led to this outcome. While differentiation and give-up-and-make-em-smile tactics might have come out at around the same time, and even be mentioned in the same breath as answers to behavioural problems, there is no explicit link.

  7. “These two points don’t follow each other”

    Yes they do, if you read the entire conversation. The first sentence is an explanation of why you shouldn’t use the word “systematic”. The second is an attempt to restate the previous conclusion without going so far as to claim teaching is systematic.

    Incidentally, you don’t post to the TES forum as “DiogenesofSinope” do you?

  8. Well written, sir!!

    I sometimes make my kids smile (entertaining), but I often wonder how much they’re really LEARNING. . .

  9. This is a most excellent post! Your ideas resonate very clearly with me….and yes, I often feel like BOZO the Clown complete with large shoes and large red nose. :)

  10. I just attended a new staff training about working on the self-esteem of the students. (This was ostensibly a training about classroom discipline.) My response is that it’s my job to teach the students to read – any sense of self-esteem should come from achieving that goal (at whatever level).

    My head teacher went on to say that ‘Thankfully there are only a few teachers who still think that their job is just to give information’ and I almost walked out. (Had my exit not been so obvious, I would have.)

    How interesting, then, to come here and read that the definition has changed!

    Thanks for writing out my thoughts for me. Saves me so much trouble! :)

  11. Don’t get me started on “self-esteem”.

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