“You’re about the only one in that building I can stand,” says Mike. “You and your wife and a coupla others.”
Mike and I knew each other while we were in school to become teachers. We played on a men’s league baseball team, hung out before and after games, and now that he’s the school’s baseball coach, I make cameo appearances in the dugout during the playoffs. The building he refers to is the “academic” building, a place he and other coaches who spend the bulk of their days teaching gym or drivers ed are loath to visit unless under mandate. The academic teachers treat him as an outsider. He speaks with a twang, not always heeding better grammatical conventions. He values “wins” and “losses” and has a lesser grading load. He’s decidedly not an academic. He’s “just a coach.” But Mike and I speak a similar language: baseball. We know about bunt coverage and what it means to “go yard.” We’ve spit sunflower seeds, hit “fungoes” and yelled, “Hit the cut-off man!”
During faculty meetings, the history teachers play bingo. They use cards with squares labeled “data” and “growth” and “rigor” and “standards” and “hall duty” and “administrative team” and the like. Were a card to find its way onto the streets, the terms could indicate a variety of things depending on which stranger found this meeting artifact. But any teacher knows exactly what the words mean and what they mean for their job expectations. There is a shared camaraderie surrounding the recurring topics of conversation when the school staff gathers.
My wife and I live in a fairly nice subdivision. The yards are mostly well-kempt (the homeowners’ association places a “Yard of the Month” sign in deserving lawns). The homes range from modest to McMansion, depending on the street. Our neighbors come from a variety of backgrounds and careers. Recently, a home catty-corner to ours became a rental, and the new occupants placed two signs in their yard: “Beware of Dog” and “Private Property.”
They’re the type of signs one buys at Ace Hardware and does not see in neighborhoods like ours. They are not ostentations, but they are obnoxious and an eyesore. We know they live on private property, and the other people in the neighborhood place their “Beware of Dog” signs discreetly, noticeable primarily to the meter-reader who must pass through a gate to their backyards. Our new neighbors’ dog is often in the unfenced front yard, unattended, and without a leash—something I have almost never seen while walking my dog throughout the subdivision. I do not want to walk Lolo past their house. Do they or don’t they have an electric fence? Is the dog unfriendly? Why the need for each sign? Are the occupants growing marijuana or holding children hostage? (I kid.) Do they know that the husband and wife directly across the street from them both work in the county’s district attorney’s office? (This is true.) I wonder what the homeowners’ association letter to the home’s owner will say.
This and the previous two situations illustrate clashing and sharing of Discourses. Theorist James Gee refers to “Discourses,” thusly:
“Discourses,” with a capital “D,” that is, [are] different ways in which we humans integrate language with non-language “stuff,” such as different ways of thinking, acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, believing, and using symbols, tools, and objects in the right places and at the right times, so as to enact and recognize different identities and meanings, distribute social goods in a certain way, make certain sorts of meaningful connections in our experience, and privilege certain symbol systems and ways of knowing over others” (13).
That’s quite a lot to take in. It involves such concepts as “socially-situated identities” and “social languages.” In a nutshell, within a “Discourse” community, we act in a way deemed appropriate by that community and we use the language and, ostensibly, at least, share the values of other members. We are one of them. Or as “they” would say, “One of us.”
To the other teachers, Coach Mike is not “one of us.”
A non-educator looking at the bingo card would not be considered “one of us.” Our new neighbors, according to what they communicate, are not “one of us.”
We write comfortably for audiences we know, in settings where we feel at ease. The teacher writes a professional email to a parent, and uses clear sentences and precise grammar, while including only pertinent information to the student’s performance. The businessman succinctly drafts a proposal for his bosses’ approval that includes charts and graphs and costs and profits—gross and net. The doctor writes a patient referral to a colleague, using terms like “retinitis pigmentosa,” instead of “pink eye.” In each case, the authors need to convey that they belong that their word is good and that they are in the know regarding what people in their positions are supposed to be.
What and how we communicate determines whether we are recognized as “one of us.” This is especially true in writing, where non-verbal cues are sparse, and our words become our surrogates.
I once asked an attorney friend about writing for her job. She responded, “For criminal appeals, it is 99% writing…In death penalty cases like those I’ve worked on, you file the appeal to the appropriate court. At the state level, you get one hearing to argue the major points of the appeal. Time is limited so you can’t argue everything. Your writing has to detail all the areas since that is all the judge will read.
Think about the consequences if the judge does not believe the attorney is “one of the legal community.”
In education, think about the teacher’s standing with students if her syllabus is corrupt with grammatical errors. Or perhaps she sends an email to a parent and includes an expression that contains slang. Consider, too, if instead of slang, she uses educational mumbo-jumbo, “moving the fifth quintile of students into a growth area” so that a “value-added performance assessment” may be satisfied. Aside from write about her own professional evaluation, she has also botched the communication with the parent altogether by using jargon more appropriate for an educator’s end-of-year self-assessment or performance assessment to be read by her principal.
I’m no stranger to such “self-assessments” and “professional growth plans.” New teachers see these forms—themselves loaded with nearly incomprehensible bureaucratese—and their stomachs turn a little, not knowing exactly how to fill them out and what impact their words may have on the principal’s perception of them. Veteran teachers reassure them and help them conjure their own educational jargon.
Always include something about student performance and a percentage increase or decrease in some area over some time period. Write that next year’s students will improve their scores on the geometric proofs by 25% over the course of one semester. Then write how you will accomplish this by working in your PLC’s on problem sets for the EOC. It’s just going to be filed and forgotten anyway.
On the other hand, all emails, professional letters, syllabi, and assessments have real, more discerning eyes on them. They will not (probably) be placed in a folder and filed away to be discovered by a future principal, five years later*. Students need clear directives on their tests. They shouldn’t stumble over wordiness or unclear modifiers or pronoun references or other faulty grammar. Parents are busy people (except the one who emails every week asking about upcoming assignments); the teacher’s email better be to-the-point, professional, but also friendly and welcoming parental input. A letter describing an upcoming field trip in a letter to moms and dads needs to be thorough, anticipating every question, as the teacher asks parents for permission to take their “precious cargo” to study zoology at an alligator farm. The syllabus needs to be explicit in explaining classroom policies (for student and parent) and in describing specific works that will be read or materials that will be required. Strategic vagueness, though, may prevail if the class will read reams of copies of articles from The New Yorker or the local paper or the composition textbooks found at the used bookstore. Here, I would also refer you to Dr. Ted Hipple’s article, “Somnolent Bulls: Red Flags, Dirty Books, and Censorship Pedagogy.” Dr. Hipple writes,
Lots of parents don’t know what their kids are reading, and many don’t care, as long as the kids pass, seem content, and are reading something. Should we tell them, “Hey, parent, your son or daughter is about to be required to read material you may not like. OK? Please indicate it is by signing below. And if it’s not all right, let us know and we’ll find something else. (19)
But you might consult a trusted department elder before committing to this strategy or broaching this subject with an administrator who may, too, be a somnolent bull.
And yet, known of this means that, as a teacher, one has to write humorless monuments to grammar and boredom. Show some personality, some voice—especially you, the English teacher who is going to insist that students write with voice as they churn out five-paragraph themes on Chaucer. Why? Because that’s another aspect that makes a teacher part of the educational Discourse community—the ability to be both guardian of standards and relatable, approachable, makes-learning-fun Mr. or Mrs. _____.
And hopefully not the snobbish sees a child as “just a student,” her mother as “just a parent,” and a colleague as “just a coach.”
Gee, James. Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method, Third Ed. Routledge,
Hipple, Ted. “Somnolent Bulls, Red Flags, Dirty Books, and Censorship Pedagogy.” English
Journal, vol. 90, no. 3, Jan. 2001, p. 18.
*True story: Curriculum principal calls me to office. They cannot find my highly-qualified paperwork. There are files of all sorts scattered about her office and she’s still digging through a gargantuan cabinet. She pulls one file after the next. “These people don’t even teach here anymore,” she says. Followed by, “I think she’s dead. In fact, I think I was at her funeral.” My paperwork—forms I had submitted less than four months earlier—had been lost, and guess who had to redo them.