Guest Column

The Power in Your Words

by Beatrice S. Fennimore

Have you ever heard a lawyer say, "My clients come from the dregs of society—how do you expect me to defend them?" or a doctor say, "My patients come to me sick, what am I supposed to do with them?"

Too frequently we hear a version of the following from educational leaders: "The public must realize we are facing nearly impossible challenges in schools. Children increasingly come from homes affected by poverty, dysfunction and disorganization. Parents fail to instill respect for schooling in their children. Their communities suffer from drugs and violence. We do what we can with so many children at risk and should not be unfairly judged by low test scores."

At first glance, these words might appeal to educators who daily share in the enormous responsibility for public schooling. But are they words we should expect from an educational leader in our democracy?

These words do not exude a professional sense of efficacy, insight and courage. In fact, they amount to little more than a public confession of inertia and defeat. Words of complaint and lament over the failings of children, families and communities cannot build the vision necessary to lead the public through meaningful school reform.

Sadly, the language of American education historically has been riddled with descriptions of child deficiency, massive labeling and negative assumptions about children and families that range from counterproductive to discriminatory. This deficit terminology, along with the tendency of some educators and parents to blame one another for school problems, creates a weak and wobbly stage for school-community discourse.

Instead, educational leaders should focus on talk that describes the pathway from where we are now to what schools and communities together might one day become. Leaders can assertively shape public conversation with words that embody relentless determination to solve complex educational problems.

Linguists remind us we never simply "say something" because words are deterministic as well as descriptive. Language is a human behavior, and an action, with the power to make things happen and keep happening in one way rather than another. Thus language as a behavior that can create a stable context for changed attitudes and dispositions of others is well within our control.

Educational leaders have been under pressure to adopt expressions from the business and political domains. But simple statements about "restructuring" or "ensuring high standards" may falsely imply a quick fix to complicated longstanding human dilemmas.

Thus, it is critical for educational leaders to temper the language of business and politics with public reminders of the moral and ethical mandates of schooling in a democratic society. Their public words need to insist that school reform focus on equity, fairness and social justice—concepts not always associated with business management or political dealings.

Real changes in the performance of schools must take place in the very human context of risk, failure and a continued willingness to approach seemingly intractable problems with unwavering vision over an extended period. No matter how hard they work and how many standards they reach, children and their teachers will continue to be profoundly affected by the determination of the communities in which they function (as well as society at large) to work tirelessly on social, political and economic problems and inequities. What words might the educational leader who began this column use to respond to criticism while also fueling a determined community desire for school and social reform?

Educators have made the professional choice to work diligently to have an impact on schools that frequently reflect larger social and economic problems. We need the help and support of our communities to overcome the significant challenges facing our schools. We can not allow these obstacles to prevent all students from becoming competent and caring citizens in a just American society. Educational leaders have the power to choose and use words that renew courage, build community and inspire democratic vision during this national process of school reform.

Beatrice Fennimore is a professor of education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 303 Davis Hall, Indiana, Pa. 15705. E-mail: She is the author of Talk Matters: Refocusing the Language of Public Schooling (Teachers College Press).