Guest Column

Regaining the Profession Through Our Language Use


One reason members of the public criticize educators is that those working as professionals in the field do not always come off looking educated.

Some teachers, principals and superintendents (thankfully not many) labor to use colloquial language in their written, as well as oral, communication. Evidently, such behavior is intended to render the person more down home and one of the common folk. A scarier thought is that those individuals do not know any better.

Educators should stand as role models for students in their communication as in all of their actions. If we are to command the respect of the public on a professional level similar to that of physicians and attorneys (lawyer jokes notwithstanding), we must appear as educated as they are.

Principals work hard to obtain a graduate degree and a position of considerable responsibility and influence over the education and lives of youngsters in their school. The last thing they want to do is set themselves up as targets for ridicule from aggrieved community members or disgruntled faculty.

Forgiven Lapses
A favorite avenue of unhappy faculty who subscribe to the Dilbert philosophy that the boss is somehow an intellectual inferior is to smirk, sigh or openly criticize the principal’s grammatical faux pas. Furthermore, a superintendent with poor grammar usage enjoys less credibility when addressing teachers, parents, elected officials or, worse, members of the media who are capturing each word. Educators should appear educated in their use of the spoken and written word.

Sometimes it is difficult to communicate with perfect grammar, especially in a tense extemporaneous situation. A principal may be forgiven during the handling of a bomb scare for asking, “Where did that call come from?” or making the statement “a person that calls in a bomb scare is sick.” In other circumstances, that principal more properly should have asked “From where did that call originate?” and “a person who calls in a bomb scare is sick.”

The really embarrassing mistakes tend to be those in written form. Most states now require prospective principals to pass a written exercise to demonstrate their literacy competence. However, the standard for passage on these state exams sometimes is less than rigorous. And there’s always a critical teacher ready and willing to score a memo generated by a higher-up with a C-minus.

No matter how capable principals or superintendents may be in their managing capacities, poor grammar and punctuation will reduce their effectiveness.

Verbal Gaffes
A superintendent we knew would refer to expulsion as expellsion. He did not make this mistake just one time but mispronounced the term regularly. He apparently confused the verb expel with the noun expulsion. Nonetheless, his gaffe was a highlight of expulsion hearings. In fact, he mispronounced the term so often that he baffled parents, lawyers and other attendees of expulsion hearings such that they, too, began to refer to expellsion.

Whenever this superintendent pronounced the word err as error, his building principals tended to overlook it because of its apparent wide misuse — so much so that dictionaries now include error as a second acceptable pronunciation of the shorter word.

When he used the word mute in place of the word moot, however, it was just too much, and the subtle eye rolls began once again. The principals often tried to maneuver him into saying that something was a mute point. What fun they had!

At the university level, where many principals and superintendents go to slow down in the later years of their career, we often hear oral gaffes during job interviews for teaching positions. When someone interviews for a faculty post in educational leadership, the interview committee includes faculty from all disciplines within the College of Education, and most of those faculty fancy themselves intellectually superior to anyone this side of William Shakespeare. Many of these highbrow professors began as teachers in the public schools and often hold no great affection for school administrators. As a result, they are quick to criticize any educational leadership candidate for a perceived faux pas in word or deed.

One glaring example arose during an interview when an African-American professor asked a candidate for his views concerning diversity within the university setting. In his answer, the candidate used the term “your people,” obviously referring to African Americans. Later, not a single soul recalled the candidate’s answer to the question, but everyone vividly remembered the insensitive racial reference.

Other memorable interviewees have used ax in place of ask, alls I know, defiantly in place of definitely, expecially, all intensive purposes and udder rather than utter.

False Security
Even for those of us dwelling in the ivory tower of the university, proper verbiage can be elusive. A well-established faculty member (happily not in the educational leadership department) never understood the difference between the words serve and service. She frequently referred to servicing the students. Most of us realize that cars are serviced while students are served.

The use of proper wording, grammar and punctuation is neither pretentious nor overly academic. The more you work at it, the more natural it becomes. Articulate speech and writing validate your advanced education, credibility, capability and professionalism.

Finally, always run your computer spell-checker — while realizing that spell-checkers do not flag incorrect or misplaced words, only misspelled words.

Kenneth Murray, a former superintendent, is associate professor of school law and school finance at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. E-mail: Barbara Murray, a former superintendent, is chair of the school board of Brevard County, Fla., and an associate professor of education leadership at the University of Central Florida.