How to Combat and Avoid Plaque

From the perspective of an English FE practitioner (with teeth)

cartoon of a tooth wearing glasses carrying a stack of booksAs a teacher, are you conscious of your teeth? Or does it not matter anymore since we adopted facemasks? How much do you care about your dental health and aesthetics? But as teachers, how much do we care about our students? do we care for them deeply as much as we do for our teeth? or is the profession just all aesthetics and status? Don’t bite your nails just yet, read on for the voices in my head as I lay in wait for a root canal …

Dental health

So, in my recent visit to the dentist which was at tooth hurty (2:30 pm), I was quite inspired by the meticulous care of my dentist who spent over 40 minutes examining the health of one tooth to check if it was dead or alive. Why was this so fascinating to me? As I lay there on the chair, on reflection, I was wondering how much care and attention we give to our little canines students. Do we as teachers, pass them off as ‘dying teeth’ if there is no sign of progress? One sign that my central incisor might still be alive is that it has not yet totally lost its colour. Maybe if we can relate to the colouration of our students, by which I mean – their enthusiasm, their motivation, and their shine – we may just see how much life they have in them!

Paying attention to detail

Great, so my tooth is still alive, but why can’t I still get my Invisalign treatment and get a perfect set of teeth, weren’t they cleaned recently by a hygienist? No, because the hygienist does about 30% of the work’ said my dentist – whilst I need to do the other 70%. Here we have another analogy: What is good brushing practice? And what is good teaching practice? Do we spend too much time ‘talking’ and conflate that with ‘teaching’? On the other hand, how much time do our students spend articulating what they have ‘learnt’? If teachers led >30% of the time and our students demonstrated their skills the other 70% of the time, would that be more telling of their progress?


Ok, so our students have brushed by which I mean they’ve produced some work. Suppose this work was a piece of writing, do I now need to fix all the cosmetic errors – spelling, punctuation, and grammar? Wait, so you think just because there has been some brushing that’s enough to get into cosmetics? Simple answer…no, ‘brush more’. Brush more? Right … write more! Just like many adults who simply don’t brush enough, students don’t write enough.

Handling the instrument

Paraphrasing the question or offering a superficial answer is like passing the toothbrush haphazardly across the teeth and calling that ‘brushing’. Likewise, as teachers, scribbling the pen and making haphazard comments is not exactly what is considered by awarding bodies as good ‘writing’. So how does the dentist clean teeth differently? Like my dentist said, ‘Hold the toothbrush like a pencil and go over each tooth, rather than with a fist and try to brush several teeth at once. Go over the back of the tooth, the front, over, and along the gum line …’ I see, we need to be careful about how we use our marking pen … do we hold it with a fist and give several of our students the exact same broad-brush feedback or do we need to go over our students’ work meticulously and clean and polish each piece of work at a time for each individual student?

But what if my student is just a ‘dying tooth’ and has no interest? Well, as my dentist said, ‘rather be safe and keep the tooth’ before assuming a tooth is dying. If the tooth has sensitivity, there is sign of life. There were all sorts of tests being done on my central incisor … an X-ray, a cold-test, and checking for decolouration … Now, what tests can we do for our students? How about we start finding out the hot and cold that makes our students react? These tests could include asking them their future goals, how could achieving high grades in English contribute to that goal? What do our students find sweet about their English lessons and what leaves a bitter taste in their mouths?

Lastly, an adult has a set of 32 teeth but do we have 32 students in our classes? I’d imagine the number to be less, perhaps near half this amount, depending on where you work. What can we learn from the passion of a dentist who takes time to examine and pay careful attention to every tooth?  I guess there is much to learn from a dental visit but an interesting thought I’d like to end with is:

Edudentally, what might your students lose at a dental visit but possibly gain if they did well academically and professionally?


The answer is the polyseme in the title!


I would like to thank Chloë Hynes for her feedback and reflections on my article, and most importantly, Mr Richard Baines – the inspiring dentist!

Usman Maravia


Researcher at the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS), Lancaster University – and Coordinator of English at Myerscough College