Choosing new words

rainbowhands

Can I share with you one of my most embarrassing teaching moments to date? Actually, I think I need to just own it and say that it was my MOST embarrassing teaching moment to date, even surpassing the one time I sarcastically asked a fourth grader in a substitute teaching situation which was heading in a distinctly undesirable direction, “How stupid do I look?” That one was mostly about frustration, and my feeling embarrassed mostly had to do with myself, not the student. He was, frankly, delighted to answer the question. This one was about me shoving my foot in my mouth. Three times. In front of a large audience.

A few weeks ago I was asked to talk to a large seminar of students for about 10 minutes. I don’t typically do 10 minute sessions, but I’ve been working to build a relationship with the campus program associated with the class, and I’ll take all the 10 minutes I can get to strengthen the relationship. I knew in advance that it was a very large seminar – 300 students. So large, in fact, that they weren’t able to find space to accommodate the whole seminar in one lecture hall, so they had two lecture halls and were using Zoom to communicate between the two. So I’d be talking to a room full of students, plus video chatting another room that I couldn’t see.

My teaching practice is deeply informed by the Socratic method. Even when I knew the format was best suited to be simply talking for 10 minutes, I found myself asking questions. A student raised a hand, and I acknowledged the student’s response by saying, “Yes, the gentleman in the blue hoodie.” I had made my first mistake.

You see, despite appearances (freshman student, soft face with no obvious facial hair, very short haircut, oversized hoodie in pale blue), it was immediately obvious by the look on the student’s face that I had incorrectly identified gender. The student answered my question and like a good librarian concerned with accessibility, I repeated the question into the microphone for the students who were watching from the other classroom. This time I identified the student as “she.” As I did it, I realized that I didn’t know that the student preferred “she” either. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. That was my second mistake.

And the third mistake? Not acknowledging my previous two assumptions and simply plowing on through the rest of my 10 minutes. I felt just awful.

The next week, I co-taught a fairly routine class. Afterwards a student came up to me and thanked me for talking to the large seminar class from the week before. She said that she knew it wasn’t an easy thing to do to talk to that many students at once and she really appreciated that I came to seminar. I could have cried. First of all, when have you ever gotten such a kind acknowledgement from a student? Second of all, didn’t she notice what a horrible thing I had done?

I’ve been beating myself up over this ever since.

At The Collective conference last month I attended a session on creating inclusive spaces for gender non-conforming students and workers and identifying unconscious bias in ourselves. It’s pretty clear from this interaction what my own unconscious bias is. The piece of advice that sticks with me from that session is that we all mess up, even those of us who are trying really hard to do the right thing. Rather than not trying, we have to forgive these mistakes and identify changes to do better next time.

Trying to change our teaching practice wholesale to make a perfectly inclusive classroom is a task big enough to choke even the most enthusiastic of advocates. I’m paralyzed by the large-scale change (not to mention the research) it would require of me to create a “perfect” classroom, and so I’m choosing and sticking to two very small changes for the next year. I hope these small changes will yield big results, both in how my students feel and how I feel in the classroom.

First, I am removing the words “ladies” and “gentlemen” from my teaching vocabulary. These are words that I picked up as a camp counselor more than a decade ago. It was an arts camp, if you must know, and at the time “ladies and gentlemen” felt more empowering to the campers than “boys and girls” and certainly more correct than “women and men,” not to mention discipline appropriate. While the terms seem respectful from the outside, they are gendered. Instead I will use the word “student” or “learner” to refer to everyone who enters my classroom. Imagine how the situation would have changed had I said, “Yes, the student in the blue hoodie?”

Second, I will choose and learn an “acknowledgement of mistake” script that I can use anytime I’ve made an incorrect assumption (gendered or otherwise). Something along the lines of: “I apologize. I’ve made an assumption that may not be true. Would you please correct me?” By doing this, I hope to never be wordless in one of these situations again, and I hope that by acknowledging and correcting my mistake, I can make the classroom feel like a safe place for others to do the same.

As I’ve said before, words matter. I have power over mine, and I will be choosing better from now on.

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