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What Is Truly the Meaning Behind Words Like 'Disadvantaged' and 'Disengaged'?

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We use a lot of phrases in schools. Walking around the hallway or sitting in a faculty meeting, we will hear words like "common formative assessment," "growth mindset," "fidelity," and "differentiated instruction." It's important for those who work in schools to explore the words they use because the school community may have a common language, but those individuals who make up the community may not have a unified common understanding of those words. 

But what about our perceptions around words like "disadvantaged" or "disengaged"? When adults use those words, what do they mean? Does the use of those words actually show that the adult has a deficit mindset? Are those words code for some deeper meaning? Perhaps even a deeper bias?

Over the last few months, the need to explore the words we use in school has taken a much more serious turn. Due to the need for conversations around racial unrest, white privilege, antiracism, discrimination, and institutional racism, I believe we need to explore the words we use, and the important context of those words, to a much deeper level. 

One of the areas where we can do this is through our collaborative spaces. PLC's, faculty meetings, and leadership-team meetings. Unfortunately, most teams will not dive into these conversations because they either do not know how, don't care to do it because some of the individuals on the team have deep biases, do not even have it on their radar, or there isn't enough diversity to raise or see concerns.

Where do we have these critical conversations?
A few weeks ago I received a tweet that once again for me opened up the importance of talking about the words we use in our schools. The educator tweeting to me asked,

Honest Q (question)...is Collective Teacher Efficacy even attainable within a group where there are differences/disagreements on things like antiracist work, BLM and police brutality? In other words, if there is a conflict about human rights, how can said group be considered a collective?

For those of you unfamiliar with collective-teacher efficacy, Tschannen-Moran & Barr, (2004, p. 190) found that, "Collective teacher efficacy refers to the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities." In a meta-analysis by John Hattie, collective-teacher efficacy has an effect size of 1.39, which is well over the .40 that equates to a year's worth of growth for a year's input. 

The tweeted question is an essential one, given the immediacy of these monumental racial issues we face in schools, as well as in our country. My response was,

This is a very important question & I think it moves beyond collective teacher efficacy. It speaks of leadership, school climate & the need for critical conversations on the topics of institutional racism and privilege. Too many avoid the topic and their silence is deafening.

Just as with collective-teacher efficacy, there is a phenomenon referred to as leadership self-efficacy. Bandura (2000) found, "When faced with obstacles, setbacks, and failures, those who doubt their capabilities slacken their efforts, give up, or settle for mediocre solutions. Those who have a strong belief in the capabilities redouble their effort to master the challenge."

The truth is, if white leaders do not feel comfortable starting anti-racist work, discussing and debating Black Lives Matter and police brutality because they deem those topics to be "controversial," then they will slacken their efforts to facilitate those conversations because either they don't care to support anti-racist work, may not know how to have the conversation, are concerned about pushback from white teachers and families in the community, or they may not feel as though they will get support from their district office or divisions. 

Sadly, and disturbingly, there is also a much deeper reason why these conversations don't take place, and that is due to the fact that white people rarely go through life being identified by the color of their skin. George Lipsitz wrote, "the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its rule as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations."

As a result of these conversations not taking place, student outcomes will be jeopardized. Unfortunately, after the outcomes of students are jeopardized, those students are then sometimes blamed by their teachers and school leaders. 

Changing Our Behavior
A few moments later, I went back to the Twitter conversation because I believe it's one of the most important conversations we can have today, and discussions around anti-racist work and racism are something we are exploring on Education Week's A Seat At the Table, which I moderate. Another educator had responded in my brief break from the conversation. That educator tweeted:

Collective teacher efficacy (CTE) refers to a staff's shared belief that through their collective action, they can positively influence student outcomes, including those who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged.

The response was correct—at least the first part of it. CTE does indeed positively impact student outcomes. However, what I wonder is the perception of the research, on the part of educators, when it comes to students they deem "disengaged and/or disadvantaged."  

My response was,

What do you mean here by disengaged and disadvantaged? 

It seems that disadvantaged and disengaged puts this on the students and the original question focuses on the adults (being able to talk about antiracist work, BLM and police brutality).

The person responded, "No. Of course not!

The Codes We Use
Adults often use the words "disadvantaged" and "disengaged." Unfortunately, it's directed only to some students, especially Black and Brown students, which then takes the focus off more important issues like anti-racist work and white privilege. Dena Simmons from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence wrote about the use of words like "disengaged" and "rowdy" to describe Black and Brown students, which you can read more about here. The use of those words exonerates the adults who produce that unhealthy dialogue. And it serves to endorse their unconscious bias (or create a conscious bias) toward the students in the classroom. 

Worst of all, it creates a deficit mindset, which sadly pairs with institutional racism. It also corresponds with the fact that being white is an unmarked category (Lipsitz). This gives license to many white educators seeing students of color as disadvantaged or disengaged, when the reality is the way the adults interact with students may create the disengagement. And then adding insult to injury, puts blame on the student for being disengaged. 

In the End
If we really want to explore and change anti-racist attitudes and institutional racism, it's not just the big actions like zero-tolerance policies that we must deconstruct. We also have to look at the language we use and the implicit bias that comes with those words. Words like "disadvantaged" and "disengaged" too often put the onus on the student, and in some cases, blame the student, while the adult walks away without taking responsibility for using language and attitudes that may have created the disengagement in the first place. 

To learn more about topics such as privilege, coded words, bias, and how to talk about race and build relationships with Black and Brown students, please click here for an episode of A Seat at the Table with Dr. Tyrone Howard, Jaleel Howard, and Peter DeWitt. 

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Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is an independent consultant and the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel. He is the moderator of Education Week's A Seat At the Table

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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