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What you say matters – exposing rhetoric and the rise of TeacherSpeak

This is a two-part series, with a focus on how language impacts on both teacher and student efficacy. Teachers are the central discussion for today’s post. If you would like to read the first post on students, you can do so here.

A Teachers’ Perspective

My previous blog post discussed the importance of language and linguistics in shaping and reshaping our students’ realities. I believe that language is equally as important for teacher efficacy and for shaping the ways that teachers view both their roles as educators and the students in the classroom.

Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, albeit a rather severe example, highlights how closely our understanding of the world is tied to the language we use. In 1984, Newspeak aims to control language through the restriction of grammar and vocabulary in an attempt to limit freedom of thought, self-expression and free will. These concepts are core to our business. We should be constantly asking questions about how we can use language to amplify marginalised voices, to promote freedom of thought and to create critically literate students

I would argue that there are three key issues which sit at the intersection of culturally responsive practice and teacher language; teacher language desensitisation, espoused theory vs reality and observing unconscious bias.

Reclaiming Jargon

As teachers, we are bombarded with language. Jargon plagues our profession. Rhetoric perpetuates the status quo and our own comfortability.

How much teacher ‘slang’ do we let pass uncritiqued? Words and phrases like disruption, global thinking, 21st century and future-focused learning prompt a collective internal sigh. Language well deserving of a place in an educators lexicon gets thrown into this melee of jargon. Concepts such as critical thinking, agency and collaboration, get swept up by the tidal wave of terminology.

As educators, we have to reprogramme our sub-conscious bias towards overused jargon. We have to begin concerning ourselves with the business of semantics and have to make a point of searching for meaning. I’m not advocating that phrases such as ‘21st century learning’ are particularly helpful, or that we have much to glean them but how many good concepts have we lost to our own desensitisation towards ‘TeacherSpeak’?

We need to be rediscovering meaning. What I mean by this is questioning our judgement of terms we might have deemed as ‘TeacherSpeak’ (jargon that immediately causes us to yawn and say “heard it all before”). Instead, we need to start by visualising what this language might look like played out in the theatre of our classroom. Take terms such as student agency or collaboration. They’re buzzwords. Buzzwords are called as such because they create buzz. Why is that? Why are these terms popular? There has to be some inherent value in what they are promoting. If we begin seeing jargon through this lens, we end up finding such terminology liberating not oppressive.

The pathway to liberation is definition. If we can define the terminology we use, if we know what it looks like in our classroom, then maybe we have a chance at seeing change.

Reclaiming practice

A second part to the problem is the gap between our espoused practice and our theories-in-use. Espoused theories are those that an individual claims to follow, whilst theories‐in‐use are those than can be inferred from action” (Argyris, Putnam and Smith,1985, p.82). In education, the gap between these two is chasmic. There is fundamental breakdown between what we think we do and what happens in actuality. This leaves us with teachers who talk a good talk. In this landscape it becomes difficult to shift classroom practice.

In order to discover ways to bridge the gaps between our espoused theory and theory in practice, we need to find ways to record ourselves. This may be through observation, video recording, mapping our movement or student feedback. At the heart of this is the need for a new lens. As practitioners, we do not do observation well. Too often observation and appraisal remain compliance focused, as opposed to searching for growth. Much like teacher jargon, we’ve managed to take something potentially liberating and turned it into something oppressive.

One colleague’s suggestion is to look at implementing a non-hierarchal observation model, which encourages reflection for both parties. The power of not using a top-down model is that it raises the cognitive stakes and the mitigation of bias of an observer.

If we hope to see any change in our classroom, we need to start examining the gaps between our espoused theory and theory-in-use through constant observation and reflection.

Reclaiming Reality

I’ve argued previously that our role as educators is to act for social justice. If students are influenced by structures that reinforce their subconscious messaging, then our job has to be breaking down those power structures.

A colleague of mine commented on my previous post arguing that educators need to equip themselves with strategies to help identify the particular ways that they unintentionally contribute to replicating the status quo. This idea is one I’ve written about prior to this in my piece titled “Teaching as a moral craft – The hand, head and heart.” However, this acts as a timely reminder for us. A reminder that our values, beliefs, behaviours and in fact the language we use informs our unconscious bias, which plays out in our microaggressions. It’s pernicious because it’s unconscious.

Waking up to our bias is imperative. If you find ‘woke’ terminology loaded, one way to look at this practice is through The Matrix. In The Matrix, Neo is offered the choice between remaining in the comfortable, luxurious, fabricated reality of the Matrix (the blue pill) or to be unplugged from Matrix and wake up in reality (the red pill). As teachers, we need to be making the choice between the Red Pill and the Blue Pill. We can continue to blind ourselves to systematic inequity in education and how that plays out our classrooms or we can take the Red Pill. Metaphors aside, the strategies mentioned previously; student feedback, observation and recording your practice are all daily practices one can use in a daily process of reflection.

The education space is one that will benefit from what Freire refers to as conscientisation, teachers moving their subconscious into consciousness. In short, we need to question our language, our practice and our bias. We need to find a way to reclaim TeacherSpeak and reframe jargon through both critique and the discovery of meaning. To pull apart the definition of the words most prominent in our lexicon and question how we are perpetuating the status quo. If we can begin to consciously shift our thinking and rediscover language in our practice, we have the best chance of supporting our students.


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