Your Words Matter, But Your Silence Matters More

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I would like to remind my fellow educators that your words matter more than ever. Likewise, your silence is deafening.

With terrifying natural disasters, hateful political rhetoric, protests, police brutality, and terrorist attacks filling the news, our students need to know that we are not only aware of these events, but that we can be allies and create safe classroom environments for freedom of expression. These kinds of learning environments can make a difference in the lives of students who may not know how to cope with what is happening around them.

Truth is, you may not know how to cope with everything that is happening in our world, and that's OK. However, as educators, it is our responsibility to learn to grow in how we support our students, especially our most vulnerable populations.

I challenge you to think about your practice and service to students as you read this.

Consider the Words You Choose When Teaching Your Content Area

I always imagined that if I taught history, psychology, or English, I would have to be careful about the words I used and the texts I selected. I didn't think the same principle would apply to me as a high school mathematics teacher.

However, a few years ago, when I selected math problems for my students to use in a review, one of the problems was about boy and girl students and what math class they were taking. I didn't see an issue with the problem until a student wrote me a note, explaining that the problem, which counted more boys than girls in calculus classes, both reinforced gender stereotypes and excluded people who may not fit the traditional binary view of gender. She challenged me to reconsider the wording of the problem.

Even though I didn't write the problem, I realized that I had failed her—and students who thought like her—by neglecting to include students who don't identify as strictly male or female. I also knew that I had to address the whole class and apologize for my oversight.

Since this experience, I have thought carefully about the words I use in math problems and prompts. When I borrow problems from other sources, I adjust them if need be to ensure the language is inclusive. I challenge you to do the same. Consider gender-neutral language when addressing your class and learn how your students wish to be addressed.

Consider the Words You Use When Addressing a Population or a Group

The words we use to describe the experiences of groups of people can often enforce stereotypes and discount the suffering that many groups have endured in this country. We often call ourselves a "nation of immigrants" when we talk about celebrating diversity in the United States.

What we fail to realize is that this language completely ignores the indigenous groups that existed here long before European migration. The "nation of immigrants" cliché also belittles the plight of the millions of African slaves brought by force to work a land that was not theirs.

The same can be said about celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The term "Hispanic" refers only to Spanish-speaking people—therefore excluding Brazilians and many of the indigenous and African groups that inhabit the Americas. In recent years, some scholars and activists have started to use the term "Latinx" to break from the patriarchal and gender conformist connotations of the word "Latino."

While this is a step in the right direction, the use of "Latinx" still needs to account for the millions who have indigenous and African roots, as the term is deeply rooted in the colonial and implies that people from Central and South America and the Caribbean all share a Latin background. Can you imagine the possibilities of using this month as a true teachable moment for students?

Consider the Words You Use When Talking About Being an Educator

I'm sure that at some point you have heard the "in the trenches" metaphor used in reference to teaching. Most us have passively accepted this because we think we know what others mean when they say this. But why do we use war metaphors when we talk about teaching?

As educators, we know that our profession is often misconstrued and misrepresented—but sometimes the stories we tell and how we speak about the challenges of teaching can reinforce the stereotypes that non-educators hold. From competitions about who stayed at work the longest to complaints about all the work we do for insufficient wages, are these the stories that we want to tell about our profession?

The power of the story is up to us. If we want better learning conditions for our students and more equitable education policy, then our stories need to reflect the complicated reality of our profession.

It's easier said than done, but I challenge you to re-evaluate the words you use when speaking about your students, colleagues, and the profession. Otherwise we run the risk of a single narrative being heard.

Consider the Moments When You Are Silent

From police killings of unarmed black men to the assaults in Charlottesville, Va., to President Donald Trump’s attacks on NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, there is too much happening right now for educators to remain silent. Our silence speaks more than our words.

My school district’s first day of school immediately followed the violent weekend in Charlottesville, and I saw many educators wrestle with how to handle speaking to students about the events taking place across our country. Ultimately, the consensus was to address what happened and condemn white supremacy. And so, my first-day plans were scrapped for something better: hearing from my students and brainstorming how we could make our classroom a safe space for all.

Are you silent because you don't know what to say? Look for resources to help you sort through your thoughts. You could start by searching the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter, and then look at Teaching Tolerance or Radical Math for more subject-specific ideas.

Are you silent on the national anthem protests because you disagree with them? Consider reading why Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel. Then encourage freedom of expression among your students and encourage them to learn why they hold certain ideas. Challenge them to defend their beliefs and then respect their thinking.

Are you silent because you feel that there is no space for this in the classroom? I would argue these conversations are essential curriculum components. As leaders, we need to learn how to combat hate and injustice both inside and outside the classroom, beginning with our own world views. Here are eight suggestions for teachers who want to promote justice and equity to their students.

Consider Reflecting on Your Own Personal Biases

Lastly, I challenge you to contemplate how your choice of words or silence reflects your own personal biases. Pay special attention to the words you use when you label students, whether you’re describing their communities, lives, progress, outcomes, or achievements. How do you speak about the opportunities your students have and need? Write down the words you use, and examine the implications of each.

Understand that these may be the only words people who don't know your students may hear, and ask yourself, "Is this the story I wish to tell?"

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