When students kiss their teeth, it’s not the same as swearing

All schools have behaviour policies, some of which are more detailed than others.

These policies cover everything from personal responsibility and uniform to the expectations of how students should wear their hair. Anyone who has been following the news of late will know how much of a contentious issue the latter has been when it comes to afro hair, but I will discuss this in another blog.

Some behaviour policies list extensively the type of behaviours that are expected from students and the impending sanctions if such behaviours are enacted. However, in many schools there are grey areas, with some behaviours not listed and therefore dealt with in a way that seems most appropriate to the adult dealing with the situation.

However, there is one behaviour that is often dealt with in a way that puts many black students at a disadvantage: that being the kissing of one’s teeth.

Journalist Hugh Muir wrote an excellent article explaining exactly what kissing teeth means.

He cited its purpose as usually denoting, ‘minor irritation or mild disapproval. It may be deployed with a shake of the head and perhaps the glimmer of a smile, recognising the absurdity of what has transpired.’

Muir goes on to say: ‘Moving up the scale, there is the sucking from further back in the mouth. Longer in duration and louder, this responds to episodes occasioning deeper incredulity. Recounting how a hapless driver hit your car or responding to anything my late mother might have called “foolishness”. This intermediate kiss will often be deployed by school pupils resisting instruction because it is loud enough to signal non-compliance but quiet enough to allow deniability. For a time, young black men found its mere deployment in the presence of a police officer could get them arrested.’

With this in mind, we can see that the act of kissing one’s teeth is akin to tutting or eye-rolling which at some point is done by adults and students alike at least once during the course of a school day.

Consider this: How many times has a member of SLT asked you to get a report to them at the last minute, or a member of the administration team told you that an irate parent has requested a meeting with you? And when this news has been given to you at the end of an extremely busy and tiring day, how much more irritable does it make you? When such occasions arise, what has your response been, or should I ask, how have you wanted to respond? Perhaps tell that SLT member where they can stick their report (of course not, you’re far too reasonable to react in that way), or ask the admin team to tell the parent you’ve left the country?

How much more so with a student who is irritated by something that’s happened or something they’ve been asked to do which they may think is unreasonable or unfair. They too may want to tell the teacher to how ridiculous they feel the request is or how annoyed they are at the situation that has occurred. But instead of verbalising their displeasure in a reasonable way, they kiss their teeth instead.

The type of kiss teeth is makes all the difference. A long drawn out kissing of the teeth, signifies the greatest level of discord and often comes from the depths of the givers being. When a black parent gives this kind of kiss teeth, as a child, you know it’s not time to play. However, if you were to ask a black teenager or young adult if they have ever kissed their teeth at their parents, a common answer would be, “and live where?” Indicating that they are aware of how disrespectful the act is and should ever be done within a one mile radius of your parents hearing if you value your life.

Context is also very important. Is it the situation at which the student is kissing their teeth or is it directed at an individual? When directed at an adult, there is no doubt that it is incredibly rude and shows a great level of disrespect, but it is not akin to telling someone to ‘f**k off’. The same way that when a parent kisses their teeth at their child because they have received yet another detention, they’re not swearing at their child, they are displaying their extreme displeasure and the child knows that this is not the time to answer back.

If a student were to tut in response to the same situation, how would that response be treated? A tut can be compared to the ‘short, sharp kiss from the front teeth on either side‘ as described by Muir. Displeasure is being shown and a tut often comes with a roll of the eye. This is still disrespectful when directed towards the adult. But again, it’s not the same as telling someone to ‘f**k off.’

Obviously if the kissing of teeth is accompanied by swearing, then a student should be reprimanded for swearing and the relevant sanction duly assigned. But the sole act of kissing teeth, cannot be seen to be on the same level.

There is no doubt that students should be put straight on how disrespectful the act is when directed towards an adult and the potential impact reacting in such a way can have in different scenarios. There may be a sanction within the behaviour policy that deals with disrespect and students should be educated and given strategies on how to react to future situations that frustrate and irritate them. They should also be reminded that on most days adults in school get frustrated and irritated by situations and individuals. This enables the student to understand that this emotion is part of everyday life, but it’s how we deal with the emotion that makes the difference.

Kissing your teeth is a reaction to a situation that may irritate and annoy you. I can well imagine that over the course of the last year, many school leaders may well have wanted to (I know I have) kissed their teeth at the Government because of its handling of the whole pandemic. We are, after all…only human and so are our students.

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