A friend of mine recently became embroiled in a dispute with her school leadership ending with the termination of her contract. Weeks of vitriol against her, misunderstandings generated by management, and racist attacks on her professionalism culminated in her invitation to an “offboarding.” Entangled with all the trauma she experienced as a result of personal animosity based on white supremacy identity politics was a gentle-sounding end game with a euphemistic name aimed at softening the blow of being fired. This veneer of corporate icing on an old, crumbling, colonial cake is jarring and inauthentic, but also wholly in keeping with the onward march of the incursion of wooly business jargon in education.
Schools should be places where clarity is paramount. We teach students that the art of writing is primarily an exercise in helping the reader understand your ideas. In order to achieve this, teachers have to be very deliberate about how they convey instructions and how they guide students in expressing themselves. Outside the classroom, teachers deal with an increasing amount of jargon, much of it imported from the corporate world. The creeping advance of this language is employed to convey complex ideas and concepts in a concise and efficient manner. Its use often relies on the assumption that everyone understands the same terms, which is not always the case in international schools where there is a wide diversity of faculty and staff with many backgrounds. This can result in frustration, misunderstanding, and reduced collaboration.
Twenty years ago, when I started working in secondary education in the United States of America, a colleague who managed school facilities ended every email with the words “please advise.” While it was never obvious what advice he required or whether he ever received any, I remember wondering why this phrase kept appearing. Friends in the business world informed me that this is a typical office platitude, a banal sign-off rendered meaningless by a range of interpretations. Many more examples arrived to infect emails, meetings, and regular, informal conversations. Individual cases are irritating, while the wholesale contamination of language feels endemic. Leaders, without irony, commonly urge “blue sky thinking” on policies, take “deep dives” to “unpack” issues, “touch base” in order to “loop back” to use “fresh eyes” on “best practices” for what is in your “wheelhouse,” assuming you are “in the loop” and have enough “bandwidth” to “circle back” for the “take away” that will help with the “next steps” for overall “synergy.” If that is not hard enough to understand, this can be capped off with an arcane initialization, such as E.O.D. (end of day), to execute instructions in a timely manner while you reach for a business-culture phrasebook in the confines of your bureaucratic iron cage.
There is an argument that management-speak used by school leaders will eventually become so commonplace that no one will remember its origins. Teachers who feel nostalgic for a world where a takeaway meant a carry-out meal from a restaurant and unpacking was what happened after a holiday will simply be old eccentrics yelling about how much better things used to be. People complained, for example, about the use of the words contact and interview as verbs, contested the doctoring of the noun donation into the verb donate, and objected to the transfer of the word balance from bookkeeping to everyday life. There are hundreds of examples of this. The English language is constantly changing, and today’s cutting-edge jargon could be tomorrow’s commonplace phrase. Any railing against it will do nothing aside from taking up a lot of time and headspace.
It is not the transformation of language that is bothersome in this case, it is the origin, rapidity, and ubiquity of it that irks. In the corporate world, buzzwords are short-hand for more cumbersome descriptions. Rather than listing all of your assets and qualities, it is easier for someone to talk about your wheelhouse. Your time, energy, and intellectual capacity become condensed into bandwidth. In order to avoid explaining all the ways in which your life will change now that you are leaving a job, you are simply offboarded. In a setting where every second counts, these words economically convey multiple facets with great efficiency and line managers can use the time they save to figure out other methods of refining the strategic plan and exploiting the labor supply. Schools should deviate from this template because they do not work on the same business model as a corporation.
Many people who work in schools come to education as a way to avoid the corporate world. Some fled that sector for what they thought would be a saner, more humane, and more creative career. International schools, mostly independent of national or state standards and relatively flexible regarding standardized testing, are somewhat removed from the business-oriented school-to-desk-job pipeline that throbs in agreement with the policing of behavior in order to respect authority and shudders at a workforce that might question, challenge, and stand up for itself. Management-speak, seemingly benign, has an air of high-handedness as it colonizes spaces that would be better off without it. This is especially true if it trickles into the classroom where it has no place. Students do not need “next steps.” They need support with what to do after reflecting on what they achieved. Meanwhile, many members of staff in international schools are English language learners for whom jargon is another obstacle to clarity. Cautiously limiting its importation can foster inclusiveness because sometimes a full explanation is more helpful than a buzzword or a fashionable phrase.
Six years ago, a friend of mine, who was a principal at one of the most expensive, progressive, private schools in New York City, was fired after he challenged his boss for making an antisemitic comment. At the time I remarked that, as a result of a cover-up and well-funded publicity/smear campaign, the incident made the school sound similar to an average American corporation. My friend was compelled to sign a non-disclosure agreement (N.D.A.) as part of his “offboarding,” emblematic of the post-industrial, white-collar world. This was not a good look for the school, which was founded by Jewish progressives. And, after the fallout, its reputation did not recover. Of course, for practical reasons, schools operate within the capitalist system. In order to pay salaries, maintain facilities, and place orders for books and materials, school leaders must adhere to a business model. That does not mean they have to adopt wholesale from the corporate world.
Schools should be places where there are experiments, mistakes, epiphanies, and discoveries. Dreaming, thinking, and learning do not have to be constant preparations for the future. Education is not always about the utility of the subject or the acquisition of transferable skills. When we teach and discuss the process of learning, we should keep in mind the love of learning for its own sake. Corporate language, redolent of order and control, should remain at arm’s length in the business world, ready for adoption by the next battalion of eager graduate trainees as they march forward on their career paths. Education already has enough of its own jargon with which teachers need to grapple. High schools are populated with teenagers using freshly coined slang, most of which is difficult to decipher. Diverse international schools might have dozens of languages spoken on campus at the same time. These examples add value to the profession and keep it interesting. Decoding banal management buzzwords has the opposite effect. It is stultifying. That is why the invasive gerund “offboarding” is an unwanted, vexing descriptor of someone’s exit from a community. The word is unnecessarily succinct. It fails to convey a process that could be rich in poignancy. All the emotional messiness is sucked out and sanitized in the preferred mode of a transnational conglomerate. Conversely, when new hires first arrive at an international school it is very hard to boil down the experience to one word. “Onboarding,” in international schools, is simply a reductive short-hand for welcoming someone into a brand new world that has the potential for adventure and joy rather than the grind of another boring, predictable, nine-to-five job. International educators should celebrate how their sensibilities diverge from late-stage capitalist norms and stop giving in to the appeal of fashionable, insidious, drivel.
John Frame was brought up in Wick, Scotland. Between 1989 and 1998, he earned a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in history from the University of Aberdeen. He spent a year engaged in historical research for Macallan Distillery before emigrating to the United States of America where he worked as a teacher in New York City and Columbus, Ohio. In 2018, he and his wife, Rama Ndiaye, left the U.S.A. to work in the international teaching world. He currently teaches at the International School of Dakar in Senegal.