Vagueness Disempowers

If you asked my teachers when I first became a principal in East Harlem, they would have told you that our students were different. They devoted a good amount of time (not a ton as there were levels upon levels of dysfunction) to talking with our students. When they weren’t learning, they used the same excuse. I was a white guy raised in the rural area of New Jersey with my own privilege. Combo that with my source of understanding of people who did not look like me was mainstream media and movies. So….I was almost convinced that our students were different. In reflection, they were basically saying there was so much our students were going to be able to do. To me, my perspective was always defined by what would be good enough for my own children.

I think we can all agree that every child is different. The problem is that we do not use “different” as an excuse not to provide an education for white children, but we do it for other children. We have no right to deprive any child of an education because we believe he or she or they are “different.” “Different” is a colossal word that soaks up any chance for further discussion or exploration. We eradicate curiosity when we summarize a result in vague language. We see it happening in politics all the time. People will associate a dissenting view to a political party or campaign versus an isolated issue. Want to have books that represent multiple ethnicities, then you are called “woke” instead of looking at why multi-representation is important. Believe in cutting government spending, then you’re a far-right radical. The list could go on.

When a teacher uses an ambiguous lens such as describing students as “different”, they lament an excuse not to understand students from the lens of learning and instruction. By addressing student needs through a generalization of “different”, without any evidence to support this type of conclusion, we leave room for bias to drive decision making. Furthermore, when people use vague language, they eliminate any derivation of effort to understand what needs to be done to engage and educate students. I would offer it as a cop-out for discovering the true work that we get to do as educators to shape the lives of our students. Even if students were “different”, which we all know is true, it is not a valid reason for teachers to ignore our students’ assets and opportunities that could make them lifelong learners. What is the point of a comment such as that? I’m different so no one should try to teach me? I’m different so we can try but don’t expect to get too far?

Another example of when teachers evaporate any efforts through vagueness is when students are identified as having one to many grade levels below their current grade level. Now, I want to clarify. Having a student below grade level comes with many challenges. My point here is that if we simply label a child below grade level versus getting to know the following: how does a result like this could happen, what assets the student has, what specific support does the student need to access grade-level content, and what can I do to engage the learner despite having the lowest confidence to participate in class. When teachers paint a broad picture of “below grade level” it perpetuates judgement both by the individual and to others who invest time to listen. If teachers do not take the time to unpack the why and how, then they miss out on learning opportunities. Eventually, so will those children.

In the end, as a leader of a school, how will you engage teachers in a discussion if they label their students different? How will you get them to unpack who their students are and how they can teach them? Leadership is critical to addressing cultures normed by vagueness. Leaders must identify those moments where ambiguous language is used to describe students, address those situations, and deliver follow-up steps to eradicate those types of behaviors. Each time we label students with nebulous language, they lose…and so do we.