Curriculum Opinion

Change Your School’s Culture - Watch Your Language!

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 14, 2013 5 min read
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Andy Murray won Wimbledon. His victory was reported as the first Wimbledon winner from the UK since 1936. The world celebrated with them. It is fun, as a summer opener, to watch Wimbledon. There are days of men’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s singles, and women’s doubles. The narrowing down of the field is riveting, and then the finals. It is televised around the world. It is on the news and on the front pages of newspapers. For many it has become the symbol of the entry into summer.

The announcement that the winner of Wimbledon was from the UK, for the first time since 1936 was a blow to women around the world. Why? In 1977 Virginia Wade, a citizen of Great Britain, won Wimbledon. It may seem subtle. Or it may reveal our lack of understanding about the sport. But the message seems clear to us. Women don’t matter much.

Noticing this subtle message, we decided to turned to our own state for some data about women in leadership. According to the Council for School Superintendents, in 1997, 12.10% of Superintendents were women. This compares to 30.90% that are Superintendents today. The last report from the American Association of School Administrators indicated the national figure was about 25%. It is progress but still it is a far cry from a reflection of the male/female data in the teaching work force from which the leaders emerge.

This is not a condemnation. Rather it is a call for attention to the world in which our youth are being raised. All students would be better served if adult biases never enter our schools. We may not be called to raise flags and march, although as a free society, some are motivated to do that as a voice for change. In our districts and buildings, we can have impact and change the culture. We can be a force in developing young men and women who will be prepared to lead in a country in which we all are minorities and we all have equal access to quality education, employment and to leadership.

The fact that Barack Obama is our president is evidence that our nation has moved forward. The ghosts of Abraham Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and the outspoken men and women of their day, and ours, can be proud. But it is certainly not the end of things. Our inner cities have graduation rates hovering around 50%. It is mainly our African American children who we are losing there. Although we see valedictorians and salutatorians who are young women, proving their intellectual capacities, we still do not see them represented in leadership positions in the same proportion to their numbers.

Where is our role in this? As with all things, the first questions we can ask ourselves are, “What part do I play in the existence of this issue in our school culture?” “How can I begin to change the way our school culture perpetuates this behavior?” On the surface, these seem to be simple and clear cut questions. However, upon honest reflection about the influence we exert, if we think we have none, we need to think more deeply. We have certainly come a long way from the days when career choices for girls were limited to becoming teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Women are now scientists, and doctors and lawyers and CEO’s. But, bias is subtle in the forms it takes and in the way it shows its face. What did the manner in which the media celebrated Andy Murray’s win say to women and men, girls and boys? Framing it as the first win by a Brit since 1936, it claims the 1977 win of Virginia Wade inconsequential. Are the women’s matches and wins as important as the men’s? We believe the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

It seems logical that the most efficient way to make societal changes is to begin in our families, our houses of worship, and our schools. For if we are successful in diminishing prejudice and perceived barriers in the minds of our students, as adults they will have had a more open life experience. So let’s return to the two questions.

“What part do I play in the existence of this issue in our school culture?” Surely if we are doing nothing to extinguish language that is demeaning we are playing a role. If it is accepted on our football fields, that a fumble can be met with a call out, “You play like a girl,” and we do nothing, we are not addressing the bias. If a bump into someone in the hallway is met with, “Faggot!” and we do nothing, we are not addressing the bias. A first step is to recognize the affect that language has upon our school culture - those using it, those receiving it, and those hearing it. Next, there can be no exceptions. All name calling needs to stop because it is recognized as a revelation of bias. We can begin there.

“How can I begin to change the way our school culture perpetuates this behavior?” There is a clear beginning point. Address language first. Language is a keyhole into the speaker’s bias. But there is another consideration. Often children use language they have heard, and give little thought to its meaning. They use it without awareness of the harm being done. The permission to use any language that demeans does more than affect the recipient. Whether the user of the language knows what they are saying or not, the targets, as well as the observers, are given a message that this is a hostile environment. To ignore the behavior is to condone it. Leaders cannot do that. But to lead an environment through this awareness and change requires us, as leaders, to examine our own language, even the language that remains unspoken because we are in public. We must examine our bias and even question our own true feelings about Andy Murray, Virginia Wade, or the use of words like, “stupid”, “faggot”, “you play like a girl”, ...the list goes on. This is a “learn as you go” process...but one that is essential to the evolution into a school environment that offers and models equal access to all experiences for all students.

During the years students spend in schools, the future of our nation is created. We are becoming an increasingly diverse nation. We aspire to grow old in an environment in which all Americans are equal, accepted, respected, and safe. We hold the hope, as educators, that the talents of no child or adult get overlooked because of the physical body in which they come wrapped. A society cannot waste its human resource. What should we do about Wimbledon? We should at least raise the question...and tip our hats to Virginia Wade.


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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.