Say This, Not That: How Our Words Elevate (or Denigrate) the Profession

Whether we like it or not, teaching is a public profession. What we say (and how we say it) matters. Principals, parents, colleagues, and students are listening and watching. Our language can be used as a lever to communicate the very real challenges we face while still upholding professionalism. Check out this, “Say This…Not That,” list of common phrases and share your own solutions-oriented sentence frames for elevating the profession.

One of my all-time favorite professional books is Peter Johnston’s Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning. As an early career teacher it informed the way I framed feedback and learning tasks in the classroom and profoundly changed the way I think about my words and actions. Now that I spend my days working with adult learners, I listen to verbal exchanges within and outside of school walls with a critical ear.

Whether we like it or not, teaching is a public profession. What we say (and how we say it) matters. Principals, parents, colleagues, and students are listening and watching. The lines between staff lounge conversations spoken in hushed tones and social media messaging can get blurry as more educators share openly what it’s like to teach in a high-accountability era.

While teaching is tough work, our language can be used as a lever to communicate the very real challenges we face while still upholding professionalism.  But without offering solutions and extending invitations for collaboration, we can easily sound whiney, which can hurt our standing as professional educators. Scan through recent status updates and replay conversations in your mind, reading messages with a parent or community member lens. Do you hear complaints or compliments? Do you see a Twitter feed of frustrations or celebrations?

Are we collectively elevating or denigrating the profession?

As we approach the mid-year mark of the school year I’m thinking out loud about how audiences outside of our profession (as well as our colleagues) interpret messages in the language we use to talk about our work. And in the spirit of “Eat this, Not That,” I’ve created a “Say This, Not That,” list to challenge some common catch phrases that may cause others to pause and wonder if we see teaching as a profession–or merely a paycheck.

Say This…

  • “My students are struggling with…and one thing I’m trying is…”
  • “I’m having trouble reaching…can you help me problem solve?”

Professionals take responsibility for their actions and look for alternative ways to achieve learning outcomes. Through modeling a growth mindset and being transparent about the  struggles in our practice we can collaboratively create solutions for the very real instructional challenges we face.

Not That…

  • “These kids can’t….”
  • “5th period is always ______ (rowdy, off-task, rude, etc.)…”

These phrases can take various forms and are often used as a way to group, sort, categorize, or blame students. When something isn’t working in our classrooms we must take the time to breathe, reflect, analyze our practice, and collaborate with colleagues to address factors within our sphere of influence and control. Seeking assistance from other stakeholders is powerful, as long as we’re framing our challenge in a way that doesn’t point the finger at our students.

Say This…

  • “From a teacher’s perspective, I feel…”
  • “In my classroom experience I’ve learned…”

Teaching is complex and exhausting work. Insiders know this (and most of the rest of the world does, too). When sharing our stories, perspectives, challenges, or the very real inequities in our educational system, framing our advocacy in language grounded in experience or research adds to the professional dialogue without alienating other audiences or drifting into comparisons that stereotype teachers as martyrs.

Not That…

  • “Those of us ‘in the trenches’ know…”
  • Any other war metaphor

While teaching is challenging, we are not “battling” our students or school leaders. Comparing teaching to being “in the trenches” can set up an “us” vs. “them” dynamic that works against collaboration and distributive leadership. If you truly feel you are at war on a daily basis, you are likely an ideal candidate to advocate for a systems level (or personal) change.

Say This…

  • “One thing I’m doing outside of school to improve my practice is….”

​Professionals think, read, study, and reflect outside of their duty day. And so do many accomplished teachers. Want to be seen as a lifelong learner and a hard working professional? Share what you are doing to improve your practice outside of formal professional learning.

Not That…

  • “Woo hoo! A snow day!”
  • “Only ___ more days to Winter Break!”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m guilty of experiencing child-like glee when weather predictions of blizzards come to fruition. There is something magical about getting that early morning phone call, peeking out the window, and snuggling back into bed with cocoa and the gift of a day off. Publicly celebrating or counting down to breaks in our classrooms can be misinterpreted, however. Parents might read these messages as teachers not wanting to spend time with students. Or we might inadvertently affirm the myth that we have it “easy” working a nine month school calendar schedule.

Teachers have powerful stories. Stories that should be shared publicly. We need teachers to continue to shape the narrative about the profession versus leaving it to others to communicate what teaching is (and is not). But I believe the advice to a young Peter Parker/Spiderman holds true for us as well: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” How are we speaking about our profession responsibly and using our “teaching superpowers” for the public good?

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  • Mike Anderson

    This is such great food for

    This is such great food for thought! You're spot on…likening teaching to warfare (in the trenches?!) and praying publicly for snow days sends the clear message that we don't value or like our work. Imagine how disheartening these messages might be for our students and parents!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thanks Mike!

      Thanks for reading and commenting Mike — do you hear some of these comparisons being made in your context? I think as I prepare to wear a “parent hat” I find myself critically deconstructing language a lot more through the lens of — would I want a teacher to say that to me and/or my son?

  • Camille Sproule

    Technology

    This is an excellent article. So often, teachers forget that they are being watched and listened to…even when not in the classroom. I enjoyed having the specifics of “say this, not that”.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thanks Camille!

      Thank you for reading and commenting Camille! Are there any (do’s or dont’s) phrases you would add to the list?

  • Camille Sproule

    Technology

    This is an excellent article. So often, teachers forget that they are being watched and listened to…even when not in the classroom. I enjoyed having the specifics of “say this, not that”.

  • Teresa

    I was on board with all of

    I was on board with all of this right up until the second to last paragraph. I don't know of any adult who doesn't look forward to a break or a vacation or who isn't thrilled for an unexpected snow day. It's not a lack of professionalism–it's about being human. We are NOT only our jobs–we are humans with family and friends, who enjoy those small chunks of time when we get to LIVE beyond our daily work. I won't ever hide my excitement for a tiny bit of unexpected time with my family, or a long-awaited vacation away, or a short break to get caught up on grading or planning (because that's honestly what those "long weekends" are used for). I have every right as an educator to be thrilled for this time "off," though a good part of any of it, regardless of length, will be spent working on things that will benefit my students, their families, or both.  While I might use a portion of these breaks for pure personal time, e.g. Thanksgiving with my family, any parent who thinks I'm unprofessional for being vocal about my excitement for holiday breaks and that doing so indicates I don't enjoy every second I do get to spend helping their child learn is off his or her rocker. Is a doctor who is stoked about an upcoming long weekend less of a professional because he shares that excitement with a patient or colleague when asked about weekend plans? No. Is a lawyer less of a professional if she spends the weekend skiing after a long trial and shares that excitement with colleagues the day after? No.

    Why must teachers be held to a standard that no other professional is held to?  I can't think of any other profession that is essentially required to work all the time to justify their existence, during holidays, short breaks and vacations, on nights and weekends, with no allowance for down time or time with our families. I'll happily share my excitement over an unexpected gift of a snow day, thanks, and when asked how I spent my holiday breaks this year, I'll share that in addition to designing some great units for language arts and math, I also spent time with friends at the hot springs, time with my loved ones just enjoying one another's company, catching up with guilty pleasures on Netflix and Hulu, and a bit of time with colleagues to problem solve and brainstorm ideas on how best to help some of our struggling learners too.  If they can't handle how I chose to spend my "excessive time off," and think I'm less of a professional because of it, that's unfortunate.  

    • Lorraine

      Well said.

      Well said.

    • Marga Madhuri

      On Board

      I take your point, however, I remember a colleague who, every day, gave us the countdown. No kidding. On the first day of school, he'd say, "180 days to go." This type of attitude–e.g. the teachers who go into teaching for the vacations–does demonstrate a sense of, "I don't care about the kids or job, I'm just putting in my time." I think THAT'S the point the author was making.

       

    • Matt

      The point

      You missed the point.  The article isn't an attack on anyone's time off, or how they spend it; only that what we say and how we say it can easily be percieved as a desire to not want to be where we are, doing what we do for a living.

    • Joe Dillon

      methinks you protest too much

      I think it is fair to challenge this one because it is less overt than the others but I also believe that teachers have an opportunity to change the way they are viewed by the public. There is nothing negative about looking forward to break, it is true, but the image of teachers counting down the days to each holiday is one that could productively be replaced by an image of teachers working on their own time to hone their craft which we all know is commonplace and could sway public perception. A colleague of mine says that education needs better memes and I believe Jessica has hit on one here… the image of weary teachers tired of students deserves an upgrade. 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thanks for pushing back…and a nudge toward common ground?

      Teresa,

      I appreciate your comment and push back from a couple different perspectives — 1) this blogging space can be a bit of an “echo chamber” with educators defaulting to agreeing with bloggers and I really crave critical and constructive feedback and being challenged as I think this strengthens both the writer and the writing. 2.) Your comment generated some back and forth dialogue with educators which is one of the benefits of blogging — often we learn more from the comments than the original post itself. So thank you for openly sharing your thougths and feelings. 

      I also think we share more common ground than you might think — I definitely agree that educators earn their time off and should enjoy every moment of it — and as you pointed out, most of the excellent educators I know end up using some portion of that “off time” for their students in terms of planning, reflecting, resource gathering or thinking through what’s approaching after the break. My call to action was with respect to our language (verbal and nonverbal) and how other audiences might read it — for example while I had the luxury of spending good chunks of my break with friends and family (and plenty of good food and fun) I know that time away from school was stressful for many of my students.

      Whle I think celebrating with those near and dear to us and taking time for rest and relaxation does in fact make us better educators in the long run — my nudge was to think about what we say to parents and students (and primarily on social media to general audiences) about our time away from school. To be clear I do not believe educators should be held to a different standard from other professionals — in fact, that was the rationale for this post — if we want to be seen as professionals I believe we must think critically about how and what we communicate — does our messaging convey that we are in fact acting professionally? For example, I wouldn’t feel good about my doctor sharing how happy she was that I’m her last patient of the day and rushing me out of the office without attending to my symptoms, and if she did, I might think about switching to a practice that valued me as a patient.

      Keep enjoying and savoring that time off and thanks again for sharing your thinking and pushing me to examine this topic from multiple perspectives. 

  • T.L

    Language

    A very powerful article that all teachers should read every once in a while.   Doing so would get teachers back into the frame of mind that all teachers started with on their first day of school

  • Janice Robertson

    Teacher Librarian

    Thanks so much for this reminder. I'd like to add this one: Say this – Where are you in your learning? Don't say Have you finished your work? I think asking about a child's work undermines the importance of what we do which is to help students learn not help them become robot workers.

     

     

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Love this!

      Love this, Janice! And I think this should hold true for adult professional learning as well — are our staff meetings learning opportunities or “sit and get” sessions of information? Thanks for reading and adding one of your own — I think we could create a whole series of posts around supportive language for students (and educators)!

  • Sarah Anderson

    Attittude

     These are such important ideas to revisit . Our language ( and actions ) do communicate more than we know.  A teacher who celebrates snow days  is in danger of offending parents or communicating ideas to students  that devalue the very learning that we're trying to encourage

  • Marga Madhuri

    So True!

    Thank you for this post. I absolutely agree that what we say is heard and considered much more than we know. We don't have to watch every word, but we do want to represent ourselves in the best light. Most of us in the teaching profession HAVE seen hard knocks, and been the recipients of quite a few. However, we went into the field knowing that was likely, but doing it anyways because we care about working with kids and making a positive difference in their lives. Whining and moaning about challenging situations will not make that positive difference for anyone. Looking for solutions will.

  • Joe Dillon

    Yep

    I notice how so many of the phrases you advocate for ask teachers to see themselves as agents of change, influence, and learning instead of seeing themselves as systemically abused. Kudos to you for this post. I've heard Pedro Noguera talk about gossip in the teachers lounge and how it can be the marker of a poor school. When I was a student teacher, my supervising teacher recommended I stay out of the teachers lounge entirely during my teaching career. In my few forays into the lounge, I realized why. Routine negative talk can become the story of a school year, or the personality of a teaching staff. Even though all teachers can justifiably feel underappreciated, or just really challenged by students, everybody in a school suffers when an undercurrent of discontent is the dominant discourse. For my part, I've found Twitter to be a place where most teachers put their best professional foot forward and Facebook to be a site of teachers posting things they should probably keep to themselves as professionals who serve youth. Here's hoping your post inspires New Year's resolutions and maybe a little teachers lounge reform. 😉

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Yes!

      Joe,

      I appreciate that you read this post with both a critical and constructive lens — you are so right — I DO believe that teachers are the most powerful source of change in our schools and that agentive teachers create agentive classrooms and model agency for our students who need it most (and conversely that devaluing and/or complaining about our work can reap the opposite).  The cultures of our schools and classrooms is so important — perhaps the most important factor in creating an environment most conducive to learning and growth. 

      I’ve noticed the same phenomenon around social media — finding my tribe and tons of solutions to complex education problems on Twitter and wincing at some of the status updates on Facebook — does this speak to the implied purpose of each platform? What do you think accounts for this difference in tone? 

      Thanks as always for being a great critical friend and coach — much of my own solutions-oriented thinking generated from dialogues and coaching visits with you!

  • lyettemo

    Growth Mindset

    Hi Jessica! 

    I am so glad I found this article as I have been looking at my own voice in the school and convesations I have had this year. By reflecting on my actions, I can see if I am putting positive into my school or making it negative. I always want to look at this from a bright side. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Thanks for reading!

    Lyette,

    Thanks for reading! 🙂 Means the world to have comments from practitioners I know and admire! I want to tackle this in our leadership academy work together — any ideas or lessons learned from your school that you think would benefit our cohort? 

  • DaveOrphal

    Love this – thank you!

    Hey Jessica,

    Thank you for sharing your experience and ideas! I loved this post. 

    One of the “Say This / Not This” dichotomies that I am constantly on the look out for is this one:

    “My Kids or Our Kids / Those Kids” When I hear a colleague use the phrase “Those kids…” I tune out. I just don’t believe anything caring, helpful, or solution based is coming next.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Word!

      Dave,

      Thank you for reading and commenting — it means a lot! I completely agree. I too tune out (it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me to hear “those kids…” (which is almost always followed by a negative word like “can’t/don’t/won’t/refuse to” or some other deficit). I don’t want to simplify the art and science of teaching but the older I get the more relationships and communication/messaging matter to me and I wonder if we emphasized these “soft skills” with early career and/or pre-service teachers as much as we emphasize content and pedagogy — what might the results be? 

      Thanks for being a model of positive and productive relationships with students :). #KeepInspiring 

  • Samuel Hicks

    Great Article

    Thank you for sharing examples that match classroom issues and our inner thoughts.

  • Karuna Skariah

    Say This, Not That

    Hi Jessica,

    I absolutely agree with you on being mindful about how we project our thoughts and experiences to our audience. However, I do not perceive "being in the trenches" as a war metaphor. I look at teachers as builders, foundation layers, water and oil pipe line workers, architects etc., all working in the trenches, building crucial ground work to support an essential infrastructure for education, economy, community…. So, to paint that phrase as a war metaphor excludes the critical work/force that labors at "grassroots level," another term I use, and often used by development workers. 

    Thanks.

    Karuna Skariah, NBCT

    Karuna Skariah@KSkariah

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Interesting perspective…

      Thanks Karuna for pushing my thinking here. Indeed, I agree with you that teachers are critical “builders” — creators of learning experiences, classroom communities, and critical to the infrastructure of schools and the system at large. I appreciate this interpretation and reminder…when I’ve heard it used in context, I never hear it used synonymously with words like “builders,” “foundation layers,” or “grassroots,” which I agree would completely reframe this language.

      Instead, I hear it used as a way to reinforce a hierarchy of teachers at the bottom and administrators/other leaders at the top, or as a means of distancing teachers from the community and parents, as though no one outside of the classroom could possibly understand, relate to, or empathize with those of us “in the trenches.” I’ve never seen anything good come from setting up “us”/”them” dichotomies as I think this goes against the collaboration and distributive leadership teachers often seek out in systems that would benefit from increasing and listening to teachers’ voice and input.

      Perhaps “bridge builders” could serve as middle ground and speak to teachers’ abilities to unite and lead at a grassroots level? Or perhaps it is not the three words “in the trenches” that matter as much as what is said before and after this comparison?

      Thank you for reading and reflecting with a constructive and critical eye — I appreciate your thoughtful use of language to further our profession!

  • Doug H.

    Science

    Thank you for writing this.  I concur that we need to speak professionally in our classrooms and about our work.  The war metaphors also bother me, as I cannot identify who the enemy is and why we are fighting and not working with them.

    I also have a colleague who counts down from day 1, and that seems as though they are marking time, not enjoying this amazing profession we have and the time with our students.  

    I believe language can be very telling, and it is great to see your blog conveying such similar sentiments as those I have held for quite some time.  Thank you.

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thanks & A Note on Context

      Thanks Doug for affirming that some of my pet peeves about language are shared by other educators :). The dialogue about this post has been far richer and more nuanced than the post itself so I really appreciate the various readers contributing their ideas to the conversation.

      I’m beginning to think that perhaps what is really the root cause is not the words themselves — but the broader context in which they are spoken? For example, counting down (in our heads, with colleagues after hours, and/or with loved ones) can connect us to the people we care about but counting down in our classrooms (or on social media) might communicate something else to students and stakeholders. Saying “in the trenches” isn’t in and of itself good or bad (or as Karuna points out in the comment above necessarily a war metaphor) but the context in which it is said can imply there is an enemy we are fighting against.

      I was at a workshop session recently focused on “Fierce Conversations” and the presenter reminded us that the conversation is the relationship and that dozens of positive conversations can be forgotten in the midst of a conversation that goes wrong. I hope by simply increasing my own (and hopefully through this post inspiring others) to be mindful of how, when, where and what words we use, we can collectively elevate teaching and learning.  

  • Anonymous

    I don’t care WHAT you say I

    I don't care WHAT you say I am going to LOUDLY REJOICE anytime we have a snow day!!! WOOO!!!!!

  • Emily Volkert

    The Power of a Positive Mindset: Be the Change!

    Well said, Jessica! As a fellow CO education professional who also works with both educators and students, I can't agree more with your ideas. Teachers deal with tons of stress and certainly need an outlet from time to time (as does anyone!). At the same time, I think we teachers are so extremely fortunate that we get to influence kids' lives so much. As a result, it is up to us to model positive actions and mindsets as often as we can if we want future generations to adopt positive mindsets and behaviors as well. I always tell teachers that we have to think and act within our locus of control–we can't change principals, standardized tests, etc…but we can control how we respond. Thanks for starting this important conversation!

  • Gamal Sherif

    K-12 Sustainability Education

    Thanks, Jessica.
    Teachers' self-talk has a huge impact on how we feel and how effective we are (snow days included). Check out Barbara Larrivee's "Cultivating Teacher Renewal: Guarding Against Stress and Burnout," for more on teacher self-talk. And from an epi-genetics perspective, we can talk ourselves into healthier (rather than dtrimental) gene/protein expression.

    Others teacher talk for consideration:

    • say "parent engagement," not "parent trigger"
    • say "student learning," not "student achievement"
    • say "teacher workshop," not "teacher release"
    • say teacher "provisional period," not teacher "probationary period"

    Gamal

     

  • Ann Byrd

    Audience matters

    JC — Your words have sparked so much great thinking. Just as teachers can change the cultures of their classrooms by being mindful of their own language and how it resonates with students, they can also be powerful "shift agents" around the culture of their schools (and beyond) in how they work to redirect the thinking and language of their colleagues who may not yet "be there"—just as you discuss. One of my pet peeves is positioning a teaching staff as an equal unit to a classroom of students. I'd welcome a "Say this" list about students "But say that" about teachers. (e.g. Okay to say "my students" (though I prefer "our") but not okay to say "my teachers" if you are the "admin"—instead use words like "my colleagues" or "our teachers" — this messaging (and belief behind it) matters so much as teachers get the elevated position they deserve inside of their school's structure.

  • Pat Washington

    Learning Strategiesk to sa

    For me i do not think teachers is in it for a check because we have went to school and worked hard to get the education we have to teach. and we have to pay that money. To me it"s about the kids at home or at work in our life. In all thing we need to watch what we say. It"s power in word form head down.

  • CarlDraeger

    Keep the ‘Big Picture’ in mind.

    Awesome article/post, JC!

    I like saying “in the trenches”. I don’t think of it as a war metaphor, but rather as a builder doing difficult, labor intensive activity to make the world a better place. I also believe that my preference is no way in conflict with the beautiful original post. If I use “in the trenches” in the context of working hard to implement a reform or radically care for my ‘kids’, then I’m okay. If I use “in the trenches” in the context of indicating that those in the “ivory tower” have no idea what it is like “in the trenches”, then it does become a more adversarial conversation. Context DOES matter. However, if a colleague tells me that my words are being taken out of context (or might be) by so-and-so, I would use different word choice next time. In fact, I got called out in the Collaboratory for using “in the trenches” in my reply to another post not too long ago. I didn’t see a problem with it, but this alerted me to the danger of perceived divisiveness. As a result, I have become more cognizant of the power and the peril of word choice. This is especially true when communicating with those outside of the profession.

    These are great times to be an educator. We are being asked by policy makers for our opinions regarding school reform, drafting the re-write of ESEA (now ESSA), and school to college and career readiness. In order to maintain and build this new found trust, we should remain prudent in our word selection. How we speak does impact the perception of our profession. If we want to grow our influence of how schools are regulated/funded/supported, then we must continue to elevate our language with each other and in public. 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Brilliant example of power of context

      Carl,

      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful and reflective comment — I couldn’t agree more that context is critical and I appreciate your very clear delineation of how the same phrase can be used to either bridge build (elevate) or draw a line in the sand (metaphor intended 😉 with respect to our professional work and role. I also find it interesting that you were “called out” in the Collab for this very phrase — what a great real-world lesson in connotation and denotation (my ELA teacher geek brain is spinning :). 

      I concur that it IS a great (albeit interesting/challenging) time to be an educator and that given the policy landscape the need for elevating teacher voice and leadership is greater now than ever. Thanks for working tirelessly to do just that!

      Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

      • CarlDraeger

        BTW…

        I want to clarify more about the ‘called out’ statement. One of the things I enjoy most about reading and posting on this forum is the honesty and transparency of the brilliant and talented people who invest their time here. I have no problem with (in fact, I grow as a thinker as a result) being challenged in a statement. This is especially true when the challenges are laid out with tact and respect. I find these types of interactions to be a critical part of the ‘couregeous’ discourse required to continue to elevate the teaching profession. I find the awareness and committment to NOT be an ‘echo chamber’ refreshing and invigorating. I work very intentionally to make my classroom as safe place to be temporaralily ‘wrong’. I love that the same environment exists here. After all, it is the 1000s of failed attempts which lead us to solutions.

        Happy Holidays to you and all CTQers!

        • JessicaCuthbertson

          Completely Agree – Call me out in the Collab anytime! 🙂

          I too appreciate the care, candor, and solutions-oriented problem solving and challenging of ideas that happens in this virtual space and others where teacher leaders gather :). 

          It is inspiring to hear that the power of virtual community is alive and well for many here in the Collaboratory — thanks for helping to make it an engaging and truly collaborative space for dialogue!