“Just”. Small word, heavy meaning.
When I Googled, “I’m just a teacher” I was surprised at what I found. It’s a hot topic! Hot enough to dedicate a poster to.
click to find the poster at busyteacher.org
“Just an English teacher” is a phrase I’ve heard in a few different contexts. Sometimes it’s used to confirm that this is the essence of our work. We teach English to speakers of other languages, and while we have other responsibilities such as caring for our learners and managing classroom interactions, there is nothing inherently special about the work. I understand the sentiment, but I also grapple with it because “just” is a weighty word.
Sometimes the phrase is used in dismissive ways, as the poster above implies. This is the context I am referring to today. The memory of this phrase leads me to a school where I used to teach. During a staff meeting, one of the administrators tried to justify why the English language teachers had different responsibilities from teachers of other subjects. Without going into detail, on multiple occasions he explained this was because, “you’re just English teachers.” He implied we were of lesser value.
This story came to me today as I read the quote below. It made me wonder: does he understand what some English language teachers take into consideration before they go to class?
From bundles of acoustic cues in the speech signal , the listener manages to identify phonemes, the sounds of the language. Then the phonemes are built into syllables, the syllables into words, the words into phrases and the phrases into clauses or sentences. Finally, the sentences have to be converted from language into ideas.*
– Listening in the Language Classroom, John Field, p. 129 (Kindle reader)
And then of course, part of the English teacher’s task is to make sense of this knowledge in order to help learners. The teacher tries to use this knowledge in order to turn it into someone else’s skill. This brings “alchemy” to mind.
As the quote suggests, language is incredibly profound and complex. It is a representation of the human mind. What could be worthy of higher regard than a system that aims to create human connection or that puts ideas into action and tangible forms?
Take the word “just” for example. This word prompted me to write this piece which is now on your computer screen or in your hands.
There is weight in words.
And there just isn’t something just about that “just”.
- Thank you David Harbinson, Rachael Roberts, and Ljiljana Havran for leading me to John Field’s book.
- Although I didn’t join the chat on “words” last Sunday, #KELTchat got me thinking about words this week. Thanks!
- I watched this talk by Ruhpa Mehta about “the weight of words”, and now I see this expression in a different light. I’ll definitely be paying attention to her organization, NaliniKIDS, and look forward to learning more about her method for developing emotional literacy.
*Note: John Field does goes on to say this isn’t necessarily the way a listener processes language. He uses this sequence as a representation of the different types of decoding that goes on while listening. The quote could be one representation, but it isn’t the only one.