Code switching, the practice of alternating between a variety of languages and/or dialects, is a skill that has proven to be necessary in this ever changing and evolving world.
Code switching is so beautiful.
Code switching is so complicated.
Code switching, in and of itself, is the way Obama greets people at the White House as demonstrated by this Key & Peele skit.
It’s the way the internet went crazy when Obama greeted the 2012 Olympic Basketball Team as they headed to London.
Code switching is being able to speak three “kinds” of English, as detailed by Jamila Lyiscott’s 2014 TED Talk, and not blink an eye.
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I call code switching complicated because if it wasn’t “a thing,” there wouldn’t be a sketch about the many handshakes of Barack Obama.
Moreover, I call it complicated because I actually find it intricate at times.
Being an educator and code switching in and out of the classroom can get messy.
I began to actively practice code switching when I began to “lose my blackness” as a teacher.
I began to actively think about the ratio of academic versus non-academic language that I use on a daily basis in order to hang on to some of the connections I make with students during down time.
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What I mean by lose my blackness is – students began to view me as just a teacher, instead of a black teacher. Instead of their black teacher. Instead of their black teacher teaching a classroom of 99% black students.
I think this happened due to lack of academic versus non-academic language balance…lack of code switching.
With 85% of the teaching force being white, middle class, women, I wanted the fact that I am an educator who shares some of the same demographics of my students to mean something.
And, it does.
But, I want it to mean something to those whom it will impact the most. I want it to mean something to the students.
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To me it’s very important to engage in academic dialogue with students. This is especially true when talking specifically about academics – like English and Math. And, for me, is most important when actively teaching – whether a one on one tutoring situation, leading a small group or introducing a new topic to a class of 30 students.
The mess comes when the teaching role and identity take precedent over cultural identities.
To me this sounds like a student saying, “How do you know what _________ means?!”
Well all innuendos are easy to figure out — and my friends and I say (or used to say) the same or similar things.
“You listen to this music?”
Well of course. We probably listen to the same radio station. I like hip hop, too.
“You saw that movie? I didn’t know you watched ‘stuff like that’”
Yes. Yes, I did. I watched it, and I enjoyed it.
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I find that when students forget that we likely share the same taste in music, food, entertainment and/or word choice (among so many other cultural characteristics) – they may have unknowingly prioritized one identity over the other.
Not too long ago a student was hanging around as I answered a phone call from my sister. When I hung up she said, “I didn’t know you talked hood.”
First of all – – – there is no such thing as talking hood. Second of all – – – what do you say to a child that just accused their teacher of “talking hood?”
I was stumbling to explain how and why a belief in the idea of “hood talk” was a form of self defamation and suppression. In that moment, that teaching moment, I was attempting to properly convey all of the intricacies of code switching.
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Reflecting on experiences like these make me think, maybe I’m not code switching enough. That academic versus non-academic language balance, may not be as balanced as I think it is. And, though I think of code switching as something that happens naturally, it’s times like this that influence my intentional use of code switching.
I don’t want to be the exception to the rule. I don’t want students to look at me as the one who “made it.” The lucky one.
I want students to look at me and see themselves. I want them to see their future. I want them to see opportunity.
I recently heard someone on a panel say, “If you don’t expect your students to say they want to be teachers – I want to be just like you – then you’re doing something wrong.”
Those are big shoes to fill. But, if intentional code switching will help me do so, then so be it.