Sage advice! Our words are reflections of who we are. Our words become our actions. Our field has come a long way in the way we talk about kids. We've become much better about distinguishing between our kids and their behavior. We don't say that a student is bad, instead we describe their behaviors, so we can separate them from the students. As a field, we are now ready to examine the words we use when we talk about our instructional practices. It helps us to make good decisions about This means that we must most especially watch our words when we describe what we do. There are very subtle nuances to the jargon we use when we talk about our work. Here are some important reminders about how to watch our words when thinking, talking, and writing about our teaching.
Often, we're asked to talk about what we do. Sometimes we default to the word defending when talking about our practices. That simply sets others up for an attack. Instead, we have to explain or show what we do. Isn't that what teachers do anyway? If we're in defensive mode, we're not able to most focus on what matters most...the students. Although the climate around us might naturally put us into a defensive mode, it's too large a distraction from our real work. If we do feel the impending attack coming, instead of defending ourselves, we have to teach the heck out of it, modifying what we do to maximize the learning for our kids. We have to keep current on how kids learn best, engaging ourselves in our own professional reading, writing, and talk.
Another legalistic term we should try to avoid is in the teaching of writing and of having ideas. As Vicki Vinton writes in her blog, To Make a Prairie, we have become obsessed with evidence and claims. Vicki writes that the word evidence is almost too "aggressive," and that evidence is a word for crime scenes and courtrooms. She also references an awesome article by Mia Hood that this generation of students is being brought up to think that the only reason text exists is so that it can be used as evidence for something in school. These are definitely true. However, I'd like to relate it to the notion of defending everything we do. Yes, kids should show parts of the text that strengthen their ideas. Yes, they should make sure that those parts of the text line up. Yes, I know that the Standards are riddled with the term "text evidence." However, the entire thing might feel a little less...well, defensive...if we didn't just say, to kids they should find evidence to back up their idea. Maybe we can ask them, "What in the story made you know that's true?" or "How do you know?" It's much more natural in conversation to say it that way. I know we want kids to know the word evidence, especially in this context, but maybe we ought to tie it all together. "What evidence in the story makes you feel that way?"
Another subtle nuance to a word is when we refer to schools as buildings. A school is much more holy than that, because that’s where learning happens that shapes the future of the world. We don’t call houses of worship building. We call them by their true names: church, synagogue, temple, mosque. These indicate that something spiritual is happening in them. When we call school a building, unless we’re talking about the physical plan, we’re devaluing the important work that happens between our walls each day. Schools are schools. They're not apartments. They're not warehouses. They're not factories. They're places where teachers take rooms full of twenty- or thirty-something children, other people's babies, and find the key to making them excited to learn about the world around them. It's not a one-size-fits-all model. Every time we call them buildings we weaken others' impression of us and the work that we do.
Here's one for the principals. When I first became a principal, someone told me they heard I was going to be an administrator. The answer that just came out of my mouth was, "Hey, I don't call you names!" It's true. On the books, we are administrators, but our jobs are so much more than that. You see, an administrator is someone who executes another person's plan. However, principals, especially these days, are called to be so much more. We need to have a vision that takes the expectations of the world around us and makes them work for the hundreds of kids who count on us every day. That takes more than an administrator. That takes a leader. That takes a principal. In fact, the word principal is a remnant from the original job title, "principal teacher," or "head teacher." There are folks out there in the business world who think that anyone can be a teacher if they can manage a school, even if they never, ever set foot in a classroom. Today, principals need to be someone that teachers can turn to for both resources and advice on helping kids learn. Administrators make decisions on what to buy, and how to schedule, and who to hire, and how to evaluate. However, principals and educational leaders do those same things with the perspective of what's good for kids and their learning. The demands of the work are so much more than an administrator can truly deliver. So, let's use the word sparingly, except maybe with those who don't know any better! Calling ourselves principals or leaders is a subtle reminder to those around us about how complex our work really, really is!
It's a tough climate out there in our field! Walk lightly. Talk lightly, but in ways that gently remind others of the important work we do, and that it's all about learning.
You need a learner's soul, a teacher's heart, a coach's mind, and a principal's hand!