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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

8 Super Important Words in Education That Are Literally Used in Different Ways

By Peter DeWitt — October 21, 2018 6 min read
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We love to use educational words. Yes, most of the words can be used in our daily lives outside of our classrooms or schools, but we like to hijack them and use them for our very own educational use. What makes this even more gratifying is that every new year brings a new word that we can chase after, and use in our daily educational vernacular. Connect those great ‘new’ educational words with the popular words of 2018 like “literally’ and “super’ and you have some very powerful phrasing to bring to the hallways and classrooms...or a recipe for disaster.

A little over two years ago I asked if these 10 Words Should Be Banished From Education (March, 2016), but the list below are different words (1 is the same). It’s not that these words need to be banished, but they certainly do have different meanings depending on the district/division you teach in, or the school leader or educator using them.

Why are words so important? Well, in my research around school climate and leadership coaching, I found that the way we use words in our daily lives as educators is vitally important. If we don’t have a common language and a common understanding, there is an issue. That common language and common understanding should be less about compliance and more about fidelity. Oops...there’s one of those words!

8 Words With Double Meanings
As I make my way through school districts or divisions (Oh, Canada!) and work with educators, I’ve begun to notice a pattern. There are certain words that come up in our conversations, and it seems as though the words always come up around a challenge the person using them is facing. Meaning, “the teachers aren’t doing it with fidelity!”

I’m sure you all have words to add to the list, but these are the ones that I think literally have double-meanings. If you have others to add, please feel free to add them to the comment section of this blog. The list I came up with is below:

Fidelity — The Cambridge Dictionary defines fidelity as the “state of remaining loyal.” This, of course, is super important because we literally want to make sure that we are remaining loyal to an idea discussed in our school settings. It helps us make sure that we are doing it in a way that is consistent with our colleagues. But, is there no wiggle room? What irritates people about the word fidelity is that when educators hear an administrator use the word, it usually also means compliance. Too often fidelity means that we cannot add our own creativity, and it always has to look the same.

Student engagement — This is literally one of the most super important topics to discuss in education. What makes student engagement open to interpretation is the fact that it may mean several different things to a group of people. In one classroom student engagement may mean, “1,2,3 eyes on me” with students sitting in rows listening to the teacher talk, or compliant engagement. In another classroom student engagement may mean authentic engagement where students are doing most of the talking and the teacher is facilitating the conversation.

Leadership — Well, leadership literally has numerous different ways to be used. For some, leadership means a guy that spent years moving up the ladder of administration, and is owed a building leadership role because “they did their time.” To others, leadership is a woman or a man that we look up to because of their super amazing skills of bringing people together or experience and expertise in instructional or transformational leadership. We need high quality leaders, because the old saying is that “Teachers don’t quit schools. They quit principals.”

Rigor — The Glossary of Education Reform literally defines rigor as, “education, school work, learning experiences, and educational expectations that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging.” To others, rigor means that your expectations are super high for students, and they cannot reach them.

I worked in Georgia recently, and a few leaders told me that they did “rigor walks.” I had to ask for clarification on whether this meant they looked for rigor in the classroom or if it meant that they walked really fast?

Professional development — We literally have a love-hate relationship with these two words. Why? Well, many believe we have been well-developed over the years, and yet the development never stops. To some, professional development means sitting in compliance while someone from central office, a regional network or the state education department talks at you and tells you what you aren’t doing right in the classroom. To others, professional development is super important because it helps them improve on something they care about that will have a direct impact on students. If you want an excellent resource on professional learning and development, read this outstanding research article by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan.

Feedback I literally love focusing on feedback in workshops or when I’m coaching leaders because it is super effective and important. Feedback is supposed to be timely, specific and focuses on something the teacher cares about. In its truest form, feedback is supposed to involve dialogue among the teacher and the person providing feedback around a goal that was mutually agreed upon. John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer says feedback needs to be wrapped around a learning intention and success criteria. Feedback is done with the teacher.

Unfortunately, feedback is very one-sided. Too many teachers look at feedback as a sheet that is left behind for them by a leader who did their “rigor” walk, and seems to be very one-sided and involves no dialogue at all. Feedback is done to the teacher.

Instructional Coaching — This one literally hurts because I believe instructional coaches can be super engaging. I have learned so much from instructional coaching expert Jim Knight over the years, especially when I used to train instructional coaches for him. In my understanding of instructional coaches, they work in unison with a teacher and focus on a goal the teacher cares about. The relationship is confidential and focuses on growth. Sounds great, right? It is!

Unfortunately, in many districts instructional coaches have been used as compliance officers or they have been used as assistant principals because their principals need help with administrative duties. Some of this is due to accountability measures and other times due to the fact that the leader is responsible for doing so much they need help.

Family engagement — I saved this one for last because we could all literally learn from this one. To some educators and leaders, family engagement is about how the parents or guardians work with their children at home, and it’s about supporting what the teacher needs. Leaders constantly communicate home through newsletters, social media and school events. It’s about how families support teachers, leaders and school.

The other side of the family engagement coin is how all of those groups support each other. It’s less about monologue going from school to home, and more about ongoing dialogue among the groups where they learn from one another. Family engagement done this way is super effective.

In the End
I realize some of you will not like the list, nor the way that I wrote about it because I tried to inject some humor. Here’s the thing. Having a common language and common understanding is one of the most important things we can agree upon in our schools. Do you take the time to define the words that are important to your school community?

Additionally, we get caught up in certain words and they become the words we use at nauseum, and school staff get sick of hearing them. Leaders are highly at risk of this happening to them because they are usually at the center of how these words are used. Perhaps it’s time to find a balance with these words?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including his latest book Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018), which is a narrative story about the complexities of school. Connect with him on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.