Imagining Impact: An Educator’s Reflection on a Language Mistake by Nawal Qarooni Casiano
All the materials were queued. Slides ready, Jamboard links copied for dropping into the chat. Sign-in and evaluations prepared. I was flushed with gratitude for classroom teachers who were attending after juggling kids in some version of remote or hybrid learning; I was determined to set my face to smile and overwhelm the Zoom room with positivity. It had been a long day, and still two hours of professional development to facilitate. The virtual world of education is exhausting.
Very little went as planned. Links were incorrect, documents not set for collaborators. The slide decks weren’t ready for open access. My co-facilitators and I fumbled with screen share. At the end of the session, I apologized to the group.
“I’m so sorry about the glitches this afternoon, folks,” I said to the 35 squares on the screen. “That felt a little schizophrenic.”
Later when I reviewed the workshop feedback, one participant wrote:
“One of the presenters said “sorry if that was schizophrenic” referring to something she said. I learned that words like this are considered ableist and are offensive to the disabled community. Just wanted to reach out with the intention of doing this work together.”
It felt like an off the cuff remark, something I never would have meant literally or meant to make light of. My first instinct was defensiveness, my ego flaring like a flame. I thought: Wow, we really can’t say anything these days. We have to pay attention to every single word out of our mouths for fear that it might offend. Ableist? My cousin, so close he’s like a brother, lives with consequences of a neonatal traumatic brain injury. Me of all people? No way. I had already ventured into previously unpracticed conversation territory when discussing the beautiful works of Black contemporary artists as forms of protest, widening language stems for teachers and students around visual literacy and criticality. I already felt vulnerable and exposed. I thought I was being careful and inclusive, yet bold and unapologetic about expanding student discourse while carrying Black achievements beyond a single calendar month. I was so stung by the accusation that my language could be offensive to think of impact, of how this language would have sat with someone grappling with mental illness. I thought in circles around how my intent would never be to offend.
Despite dozens of other, positive, feedback notes, that one truly stopped me. I paused. I sat silent for a while. I didn’t say a word to my husband, who I typically bombard with debrief commentary immediately after a session. I purposely pushed out thoughts of inadequacy and inefficacy; I made an effort to obstruct my mind’s negativity. I was called into reflection by that feedback and it allowed me to process more readily the reality that our words do matter. Our imperfections can yield growth only when we force ourselves to pause. Even with the best intentions, we can still do harm. When I shifted my frame from intent to impact, I could see more clearly: awareness of ourselves and our language is precisely the hinge that change relies upon.
In fact, Jennifer Eberhardt, social psychologist who wrote Biased, says one of the only ways to correct our brain’s automaticity is to slow down and force analysis, to move from the primitive to the reflective. Eberhardt concludes: “There is hope in the sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.”
Eventually, my thoughts slid toward gratitude for the anonymous teacher who named it.
Since then, I have been scrutinizing many of my most automatic phrases. I often say “Oh boy,” or “dude,” or “C’mon man,” and now I’m realizing how gendered and potentially offensive my words might be. In Risk.Fail.Rise, Colleen Cruz’s 2021 book on mistakes, she writes, “We know that repeated thought patterns create well-worn paths in the brain that we default to more easily than new thinking.” She writes about her difficulty letting go of “you guys,” though she knew it was inaccurate and at times, not useful for achieving her goal of casual conversation and inclusivity. Cruz never meant to exclude or rub folks the wrong way with her casual use of “you guys,” but at times, that was exactly the impact. “So instead I imagined a future where my calling to people became an invitation, not a repeat exclusion. That helped a lot…So now I say, friends, folx, ya’ll, everyone.”
And Cruz is right. When I was reflecting, it was clear that my intention is always to be inclusive and positive in interactions with people. It took awareness and acknowledgement; it took imagining impact. My initial reaction was not helpful, as it would help nobody to shut down, get upset, or insist that someone would always be offended, no matter what we say. Whether or not my intention was to offend was not the point. In the case of language that can be offensive or exclusionary, impact supersedes intent.
I will pay careful attention to the words I use.
Then I added:
…particularly when referring to people and describing things.
I made a mistake of using ableist language. I internalized it and owned it, then gave myself grace. I am learning. I am leaning into my vulnerability. After all, Cruz reminds us, “When we’re more aware, we can disrupt some of our brains’ mistake-making inclinations.” Then I highlighted this last piece of feedback before closing the computer for the night.
“The art session was thoroughly researched and executed well. Lots of good content and very authentic discussion by presenters. For example, no points were toned down to spare feelings, particularly around the images in the art. I think that level of honesty is essential around matters of race and as a Black participant, it was refreshing to see. Thanks to you all for handling things in such a sensitive manner.”
Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an award-winning journalist and educator with experience in New York City and Chicago schools. Forever passionate about growing readers, writers and thinkers, Nawal was a classroom teacher, curriculum developer and literacy coach before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team at NQC Literacy facilitate tailored professional development and staff learning experiences around literacy best practices in dozens of schools throughout Chicagoland. You can find her online at NQCLiteracy.com and on Twitter @NQCLiteracy. She would love to talk to you about any of your reads!