Intent Versus Impact: The Power of Language | Chalkboard Project

Intent Versus Impact: The Power of Language

Thursday, February 7, 2019 Bahia Overton

As the Chalkboard Project Director of Equity and Partnerships, I spend a lot of time engaged in conversations about how a teacher can change the course of a child’s life. In fact, the academic and emotional support a teacher provides can help a child discover their intellectual passion and determine their path. So how can a teacher build trusting relationships with ALL of their students so that ALL students have room to succeed? One way is to be intentional about language.

The field of education is rife with jargon that we fall back on when grouping students or interpreting data. We talk about “underperforming schools,” the “achievement gap,” “minorities,” and disaggregate data along lines of racial or cultural “sub-groups.”

But if you unpack some of this language, you find that it's not inclusive, or it is deficit-based and perpetuates stereotypes. How does your perception change when you make the following shifts in language:

  • Is the school underperforming, or is the school community underserved?
  • Is there an achievement gap between white students and Black students, or are Black students facing additional barriers to education?
  • Are students of color a sub-group, or members of a group? If we are using this term to point to the inequities experienced by the group, could we instead use a term like systemically marginalized, which communicates this idea without positioning white or Eurocentric dominant culture as supreme?

The author, social entrepreneur, and CEO/Founder of BMe, Trabian Shorters, recounts a story about Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation President Allan Golston visiting a school that was receiving a grant from the foundation. When asked to describe the Gates’ educational focus during an assembly packed with educators and students, Golston realized he could not use the same words to the students that the foundation used to describe them in grant guidelines and reports. The Gates Foundation has since changed how they use language to describe and talk about the communities they aim to serve, but this is an important example of how our intent, to help, can have an unintended and harmful impact.

Without a conscious and ongoing commitment to examining the impact of our language, jargon may be overused, or used with unintended consequences despite good intentions. And unintended consequences might result in negative perceptions and treatment of certain students. Research shows that white students who ask “why?” are perceived to be inquisitive and rewarded for their query, while a student of color that asks the same question is often perceived as challenging or disrespectful. In many school districts across the state of Oregon, children of color are suspended and expelled twelve times more than their white counterparts for the same infractions.

It’s important that we slow down and examine our language and approach. Let’s challenge ourselves to gather and process valuable feedback in these areas through true collaboration and working alongside members of all of the communities our institutions and organizations are attempting to serve.

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