Hey, Guys! Language Is Important in Teaching
As the last students left the classroom, I raised my arms in triumph. I had nailed it! What. A. Lesson! I had engaged the students, it was well-paced, and after a check-in with the students at the end everyone had shown a high level of understanding. To top it all off, my student-teaching supervisor had seen the whole thing. A total teaching triumph.
As I made my way to the back of the room to debrief with my professor, my smile was stretched across my face. This whole student-teaching thing was coming together pretty well. As I sat down, giddy with anticipation from the praise about to be heaped upon me, Dr. T. calmly said, "Nice work."
Beer-league bowlers get a "nice work" when they pick up a spare on a Thursday night. This did not seem like a "nice work" sort of lesson—this was a monumental achievement! The Giza Pyramids of Mt. Pleasant, Mich.!
"Thank you," I replied, unsure of what kind of mundane minutiae she would pick to go over with me after that rock concert of a lesson.
"The students were very engaged," she began.
Heck, yes, they were. I could have given each of them a diamond ring they were so engaged.
"Your energy was really high," she continued, not looking up at me.
My smile began to fade. Her tone was making me realize there was a bomb yet to drop.
"But…" I began, seriously wondering what it was that I could have done to make her begin to take her glasses off in that telling teacher-who-is-not-impressed look.
"Well," she continued, "do you realize how much you say the word 'guys' during your lesson?"
My mind frantically flipped through the last hour of awesomeness. Thinking about it, I guess I had used that word quite a bit.
"I'm not sure," I stammered. "5 or 6 at least. Maybe more?"
"37 times," she replied simply, pointing to her notes, where the margins were full of tally-marks.
"That doesn't seem right," I fumbled, quickly counting the dashes. But she was right. 37 marks. Yikes. That was a lot. But even so, why was that even important? Had she not seen everything else in the lesson? What was she talking about?! Who cared if I used the word "guys" a few (dozen) times?
While I don't remember the exact conversation that followed, I vividly remember the ideas that came out of it, as they shaped my teaching practice (and my life) for the next 10 years, and heavily influenced the advice I now give to the teachers in my own education classes. What I say as a teacher—as a person—is important. My words matter. While I was up there flying through what I thought was a perfect lesson, I had been throwing around a slew of words without giving them a second thought.
"C'mon, guys, let's get on task."
"Any questions, guys?"
"Guys, let's get into work mode."
Now, I am no stranger to popular culture. Turn on the TV or watch a movie, and you will see many people using that particular word in front of groups full of men and women. Even women seem to use it. What was the big deal? If Taylor Swift can use it, why can't I?
The point, Dr. T. told me that day, was not that popular culture used that term loosely. It was that I, as a professional educator, needed to transcend popular culture and be more exact in my terms. If I had a room full of 15-year-old boys in my class, then "guys" might be a fine word to use. It would be a perfect descriptor for that room and all the boys could identify with that term.
However, if I had a room containing boys and girls, why not acknowledge that? Perhaps more importantly, she stressed, what message was I sending to my female students by hastily grouping them with the boys in my class under the term "guys"? What identity was being thrust upon them when I used the word "guys"?
While the term "guys" seemed pretty innocuous to me at that time, she explained how that particular four-letter word is loaded with meaning and messages. What were my female students hearing when they heard that word? What did it show about my personal language that I couldn't be more exact in what I said? Why not, asked Dr. T., take the extra fraction of a second to accurately describe the room?
I was shocked. I had never thought of my words from that perspective before. Being a guy myself, I never thought of how demeaning that word could be to a girl. Since a lot of girls hear this term all the time, they may actually be desensitized to it and not recognize its loaded meaning. How empowering, then, would it be to hear their teacher acknowledge his female students in more exact terms? It would be a fairly simple substitution:
"C'mon, ladies and gentlemen, let's get on task."
"Any questions from anyone?"
"Boys and girls, let's get into work mode."
It was hard at first, though. I made a conscious effort every day to eliminate the non-inclusive term "guys" from my vocabulary and took an extra fraction of a second to be more exact whenever I talked. Before I said anything, I took a moment to think about my words. "Guys" soon dropped from use and "Ladies and Gentlemen" became part of my everyday vernacular. I told my students what I was doing. They even started policing themselves on the term after a lengthy discussion where we found out how much better the female students felt when we didn't use that word.
Some of my friends thought Dr. T. was being some sort of über-feminist by asking me to be more exact in my language. I don't think so. Even if she was, I don't think that is a bad thing to be. What Dr. T. helped me to see that day was that the words I use—whether in front of my class or with my friends—are big and impactful. So that is why it was a big deal when I told girlfriend (and future wife) I loved her after months of only "liking" her, and why I still try every day to improve upon that "perfect" lesson with more precise language.