How Our Words Elevate (or Denigrate) the Profession

I have found that it is not so much what we say as it is how we say it.  Jessica Cuthbertson says it much better than I do.  Read below for her take on framing what we say.


Say This, Not That: How Our Words Elevate (or Denigrate) the Profession

Posted on “In a Teacher’s Shoes” Blog

by Jessica Cuthbertson on Monday, 11/23/2015

One of my all-time favorite professional books is Peter Johnston’s Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. As an early career teacher it informed the way I framed feedback and learning tasks in the classroom and profoundly changed the way I think about my words and actions. Now that I spend my days working with adult learners, I listen to verbal exchanges within and outside of school walls with a critical ear.

Whether we like it or not, teaching is a public profession. What we say (and how we say it) matters. Principals, parents, colleagues, and students are listening and watching. The lines between staff lounge conversations spoken in hushed tones and social media messaging can get blurry as more educators share openly what it’s like to teach in a high-accountability era.

While teaching is tough work, our language can be used as a lever to communicate the very real challenges we face while still upholding professionalism.  But without offering solutions and extending invitations for collaboration, we can easily sound whiney, which can hurt our standing as professional educators. Scan through recent status updates and replay conversations in your mind, reading messages with a parent or community member lens. Do you hear complaints or compliments? Do you see a Twitter feed of frustrations or celebrations?

Are we collectively elevating or denigrating the profession?

As we approach the mid-year mark of the school year I’m thinking out loud about how audiences outside of our profession (as well as our colleagues) interpret messages in the language we use to talk about our work. And in the spirit of “Eat this, Not That,” I’ve created a “Say This, Not That,” list to challenge some common catch phrases that may cause others to pause and wonder if we see teaching as a profession–or merely a paycheck.

Say This…

  • “My students are struggling with…and one thing I’m trying is…”
  • “I’m having trouble reaching…can you help me problem solve?”

Professionals take responsibility for their actions and look for alternative ways to achieve learning outcomes. Through modeling a growth mindset and being transparent about the  struggles in our practice we can collaboratively create solutions for the very real instructional challenges we face.

Not That…

  • “These kids can’t….”
  • “5th period is always ______ (rowdy, off-task, rude, etc.)…”

These phrases can take various forms and are often used as a way to group, sort, categorize, or blame students. When something isn’t working in our classrooms we must take the time to breathe, reflect, analyze our practice, and collaborate with colleagues to address factors within our sphere of influence and control. Seeking assistance from other stakeholders is powerful, as long as we’re framing our challenge in a way that doesn’t point the finger at our students.

Say This…

  • “From a teacher’s perspective, I feel…”
  • “In my classroom experience I’ve learned…”

Teaching is complex and exhausting work. Insiders know this (and most of the rest of the world does, too). When sharing our stories, perspectives, challenges, or the very real inequities in our educational system, framing our advocacy in language grounded in experience or research adds to the professional dialogue without alienating other audiences or drifting into comparisons that stereotype teachers as martyrs.

Not That…

  • “Those of us ‘in the trenches’ know…”
  • Any other war metaphor

While teaching is challenging, we are not “battling” our students or school leaders. Comparing teaching to being “in the trenches” can set up an “us” vs. “them” dynamic that works against collaboration and distributive leadership. If you truly feel you are at war on a daily basis, you are likely an ideal candidate to advocate for a systems level (or personal) change.

Say This…

  • “One thing I’m doing outside of school to improve my practice is….”

​Professionals think, read, study, and reflect outside of their duty day. And so do many accomplished teachers. Want to be seen as a lifelong learner and a hard working professional? Share what you are doing to improve your practice outside of formal professional learning.

Not That…

  • “Woo hoo! A snow day!”
  • “Only ___ more days to Winter Break!”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m guilty of experiencing child-like glee when weather predictions of blizzards come to fruition. There is something magical about getting that early morning phone call, peeking out the window, and snuggling back into bed with cocoa and the gift of a day off. Publicly celebrating or counting down to breaks in our classrooms can be misinterpreted, however. Parents might read these messages as teachers not wanting to spend time with students. Or we might inadvertently affirm the myth that we have it “easy” working a nine month school calendar schedule.

Teachers have powerful stories. Stories that should be shared publicly. We need teachers to continue to shape the narrative about the profession versus leaving it to others to communicate what teaching is (and is not). But I believe the advice to a young Peter Parker/Spiderman holds true for us as well: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” How are we speaking about our profession responsibly and using our “teaching superpowers” for the public good?

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