Having recently completed a Masters in Leadership Studies and moved into the role of principal at my school, I have come to see the importance of the language that we use while leading groups. During staff meetings, conversations with colleagues, and evaluations, the language that is used will be interpreted by those on the other end of the communication. Once the words leave our mouths, we lose control of how others will receive the message that we are intending to send. This reminds us to be intentional with the words that we choose. It can be difficult to have quality conversations with others when a term is being interpreted different ways. We can also run into issues when moving into fields in which we may not be an expert. The jargon of our respective fields, especially when not well defined, can lead to vague ideas and confusion. And worst of all, we sometimes can come upon situations where we do not have to words to have the conversations. All of these situations can inhibit the growth and progress of our organizations.
Part of the role of the leader is to clarify the words that are essential to the work of the organization. At my school, we realized the need to increase the rigor of our classroom instruction. Rigor tends to be a common area of growth for schools. Unfortunately, it is also a vague term. There is no one way to be rigorous, and the ideas of ways to be rigorous vary significantly. So, it was important that we had a common language and understanding of the term before we attempted to improve anything. To begin our process of finding a common language for rigor, I presented Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK). We reviewed the four levels in Webb’s system and discussed examples of each level. As a way to continue to turn the DOK terminology into our common language, I included it in our observational protocols and added it to our curriculum mapping software. I quickly began to hear an increase in the number of conversations about rigor. Since the teachers had a common measure and could understand their colleagues’ ideas easier, they were able to have a discussion. We have seen significant growth in the rigor of our instruction, and I attribute much of that to having the words to have the conversation.
Unfortunately, some ideas are difficult to define. The jargon of any field is filled with ideas that are essential for the work but are also cumbersome and vague. When we are faced with these ideas, we often speak as if we know what it is or we shy away from ever speaking about it. In education, there are terms like differentiated instruction and student-centered instruction. These are highly important terms that describe where good teaching is moving, but there has yet to be one simple definition for these ideas. The ideas themselves are too complex for a simple explanation. In these situations, we can try to find the best explanation we can and turn it into a common language. In some cases, this works fine and the organization is able to grow and improve with the new understanding of the term. Other times, the lack of clarity breaks down communication and prevents conversations from occurring. This in turn limits growth. One alternative that I have attempted to use at my school is to coin our own term. My teachers were hesitant to work with terms like differentiate instruction and student-centered instruction. I often heard comments like, “What does that even look like?” or “I kind of understand, but I don’t know if I’m doing it right.” These comments prevented them from engaging with the ideas, so we created our own term. We decided on discovery as our term to combine pieces of student-centered instruction with differentiated instruction and inquiry. This allowed my teachers to create an idea of what a good discovery lesson looked like. They were able to discuss how to make it rigorous, while engaging the students in different ways. Although we are still working on defining our term, we are having conversations. We can work together to define the idea, rather than stay away from them and avoid the conversations altogether.
Unfortunately, there are conversations out there where we simply do not have the words. In my graduate studies, a colleague would often say, “We don’t have the words for this.” It took me some time to understand what he meant, but it is an important idea. There are conversations about race, gender, religion, how someone annoys us at work, how the system prevents us from expressing ourselves that we have difficulty discussing. We have difficulty discussing these topics because our emotions and pride get in the way of the conversation. Rather than being able to discuss with your coworker their habits that frustrate you in a calm and respectful manner, we avoid the conversation and hold onto that frustration. We are afraid that if we have the conversation they will get emotional and prideful. We do not want to create turmoil, so we brush it under the rug. The problem with brushing it under the rug is the frustration is still there. If you continually brush things under the rug to avoid the conversation, it will come out in other places. Although these conversations are always different and need your complete presence, there are some ways that might help to make the conversations go smoothly. Naming your own flaws or part in the frustrating behavior helps to prevent the other person from feeling attacked. Also, explaining that you know the conversation will be difficult and might be hard to hear helps to set the scene for the discussion. This can help prevent the other person from feeling blindsided. But most importantly, we need to attempt to understand the situation better. If we get to know the situation on a deeper level, we can have greater compassion while having the difficult conversations.
In the end, the conversation is the important part of helping our organizations to grow. We do not always need to have a perfect conversation or understanding of a term. We just need to allow those in the organization to discuss the topics that need growth. If we are trying to increase rigor, we need to be discussing rigor. If we want to provide more support for diversity, then we need to be having those conversations. Using language is how we can create and sustain change and growth.