The Culture of Language

In my last blog, I wrote about the concept of hegemony: “the power revealed by norms, behaviors, beliefs, and practices” of an organization. The hegemony of a place can often be hidden and yet have more power in shaping a school culture than the official stances and statements the leadership uses to promote and define a place. I was heartened to read Joel Westa’s latest Voices blog wherein he talked about the power of culture: “culture eats strategy for lunch.” We’re talking about the same thing. One could say that the hidden hegemonies of a school, once exposed, are the real definers of a school’s culture.

I’d like to continue this theme of hegemony/culture for one more post, and I’d like to do that by taking a deeper dive into thinking about the power of language. The late educational theorist Thomas Greenfield once said, “Language has power. It can literally make reality appear or disappear.”

You may think that’s an overstatement, but ponder your own childhood.

What language was used, and how did it form a certain kind of reality for you? I was raised in a loving but very patriarchal setting. The language attached to gender shaped how I grew up to view women. When a man was angry and boisterous, he might have been defined as a strong leader; however, the same behavior demonstrated by a female might have been labeled as “irrational.” Men did the vast majority of speaking, and in my church setting, women were literally silent. In the home, my father had the final say on pretty much everything, even when my mom clearly knew more in a specific area (she was an intelligent health practitioner whose common sense kept the family afloat financially).

As a child, if I was about to cry, I remember being told to “man up.” When our basketball team played poorly, we were “playing like a bunch of girls.” The language of my formative years created a reality for me that entailed a low view of the female gender. Just imagine the shock and learning I went through in college trying to date intelligent, thoughtful, and confident women. Suffice it to say, what we say and how we say it makes a difference to those around us, especially to our students whose reality we are hoping to form into a kingdom-centered worldview.

I believe those in leadership have the ability to shape reality.

As we choose what to say and how to say it, we have a shaping influence on our educational communities. What do we talk about in parent meetings and in newsletters? Are we constantly sharing and re-sharing the vision and mission of our schools? Are we choosing to engage our staff and faculty in meaningful conversations about fulfilling our vision and mission? The discourse opportunities we create and facilitate have the opportunity to play a significant role in molding the kind of school culture that will in turn shape our students into a peculiar kind of people—the kind of people whose hearts are captivated by the kingdom.

I think this is harder than we realize.

As we worry about our students being formed by the competing stories they are immersed in—stories of success, of grasping for power, of the exultation of body image and outward appearances, of militarism, careerism, scientism—we need to deeply reflect on the influence those same stories have on us and therefore on our language. I have often found myself in schools with a clear vision for the kingdom but clear language that signifies a culture of ensuring students’ success in the future is measured by college degrees and good-paying jobs. Know that neither of these measures is counter to the kingdom, but unless pursued as service to the kingdom (which is hopefully consistent with the Christian school’s mission), they are simply false measures of successful vision and mission traction. As leaders, it is incumbent on us to “audit” our language (both verbal and written) from time to time to ensure we maintain high levels of mission alignment in what we talk about.

Our school community is currently on a journey to work through how we will engage the emerging realities of sexual orientation and gender identity. One of the steps we are taking in that process is to develop some norms of discourse. Our hope is to better ensure that the language we use is befitting our roles as image-bearers as we engage in what is a potentially emotion-laden topic. We try to model this kind of norm development as a senior leadership team with norms that help us focus on how we will agree and disagree and what we need to make the best decisions possible. In doing so, I believe we are simply taking the gift of language and communication and attempting to exercise faithful stewardship over its use. Why? So that the culture of our school and the hegemonies at play most consistently fit with our deep hope as a school—our vision and mission for Christian education.

I’ve also worked with a school to conduct a “discourse audit” amongst their staff and faculty in order to move forward as a school with more efficient and effective meeting and collaboration periods. I’m inspired when people seek to harness the power of language for the sake of the kingdom.

I encourage you to conduct, either formally or informally, a kind of discourse audit of your school. And then, address the areas of inconsistency and give thanks and celebrate the areas that are consistent with your vison and mission for Christian education.

– David Loewen


Filed under Christian worldview, Personnel Issues

2 Responses to The Culture of Language

  1. Bob VanWieren

    Great article, David. I would suggest a little further thought about intentional common language by the faculty being important to developing a school’s culture, not just aligning it with mission and vision, but also with instructional best practices. This is obviously implicit in your blog. A very wise public school educator/administrator once told me that as an administrator I should be using our school’s limited professional development resources (meaning both money and time) for our faculty to be learning together. She said that when learning together our school’s faculty would develop common language, and common language is what brings about true cultural change.

    As one of CSI’s accreditation regional coordinators I am in schools frequently. It is schools with well-defined PLCs (or some other collaborative culture) that generally are doing the best for student learning. The teachers have a common language from grade level to grade level, and definitely the students pick up on that common language as well.

  2. David Loewen

    Bob, thank you for the response and YES, i couldn’t agree more. Currently my staff meet every Friday AM for one hour to work on our planning. We call it our ‘story-telling too’ and require each teacher to develop a ‘deep hope’ for their students’ learning the frames their planning. this is common language all staff use together. right now we are in the process of developing common language, K-12 for the area of assessment. I think working together and developing a common language is central to developing a culture of learning among staff, faculty and students. I believe a key step to that is creating a common language (norms) around what we believe about students, each other and learning and therefore how we will talk about/with students, parents and each other in our community. In short i believe our language tells our true values (hegemony) and our shaping of a language towards our vision makes us more authentic in fulfilling that vision. Cheers, Dave

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