Dina’s Blogging Law #1: It’s the posts you write in a frustrated five minutes that always get the most attention.
There’s two main reasons that have made me want to douse these statements in Agent Orange– even though (or perhaps because) I found one popping out of my mouth not 25 minutes ago.
First, they are all loaded with jargon.
I’m not talking here about the usual educational jargon– that set of words by which we convince our superiors, colleagues, parents, or ourselves that we know what we’re talking about, even when we don’t. Those words are indeed so prevalent, and so ultimately meaningless, that you could spend happy hours on this generator site, coming up with just the right phrase to throw at your principal in your next evaluation meeting.
Instead, I’m talking about jargon which targets a different audience: our kids.
Words like “initiative,” “respect,” and “effort” are simpler, elementary-level jargon. They’re stuff our kids recognize instantly as important, but so are so obtuse or vague in their overuse that the kid is left floundering to understand what they actually mean.
Ultimately, such words are a social code which does only what jargon is meant to do: convinces the audience that they are intellectually or morally inferior to the speaker.
Our kids, especially middle school kids, are very sensitive to messages of inferiority from their teachers. The second they hear them, their eyes go dead, their ears close up, and their only goal is to get the hell away from you– ironically, the exact opposite of what we want them to do.
Now, certainly there is an argument to be made that teachers are indeed the superiors of their students. But even if we take that to be the case most of the time (which I do not), teacher-to-kid jargon also completely sidesteps what is the ultimate goal of a teacher, leading me to my second objection: jargon does not teach.
Hence, the mile-wide difference between this:
“That behavior is inappropriate. Stop it now.”
“Hey, listen, kid. A few years ago, when I was eight months pregnant, a kid ran into me in the hall full tilt with a basket full of scissors.” (True story.) “I got hurt pretty badly. So I know that you’re just trying to get to class on time, and that it doesn’t seem unsafe right now, but it really is. That’s why I have to ask you to walk in the halls.”
But even this story is not as effective a teaching tool as it could be, because it involves (again) the agent of power as the one who was wronged. (A better story might be the one where I watched a girl, pushed in the hall by a running student, crack a kneecap on the stone floor.)
Corrective stories do three things, all of which have been scientifically demonstrated to support the intrinsic motivation of our kids. They explain; they affirm; and they provide explicit, positive redirection.
Jargon does none of these things. The purpose of jargon is to lock people out of understanding, thus reinforcing the imbalance of power. This is the opposite of teaching. Teachers, in contrast, strive to bring people into a common understanding.
A final note: A couple of commentators have asked: “What do you say instead?” This is an honest question, particularly when you need shorthand in situations that don’t allow for corrective storytelling. I approach this in two ways.
First, I try to create catchphrases that are not jargon, but are more like slogans: meaningful, but still short and sweet. I have been known to walk in the halls after last bell like a crazy person, placing myself in front of the flow of kids and bowing, saying “Namaste– peace be with you.” They may arch an eyebrow and roll their eyes, but they all slow down.
Second, if I do mistakenly use jargon, or are forced to use jargon by the situation, I make sure I take the student aside as soon as possible, and tell my story, as well as– and this may be the most important part– give the kid a genuine opportunity to tell their own.
If this kind of detailed micromanagement of teacher-to-kid communication seems like overkill, it is– and it is required. By the time kids get up to me in 7th grade, nine times out of ten they are so steeped in the superior/inferior culture that they are like the adolescent rabbits in my backyard right now, shying away if you blink at them. Bringing them into a more positive dynamic of interaction takes a good amount of TLC.
But frankly, folks– isn’t that what we’re here for?