Should Educators “Stay in their lane?”

The phrase “stay in your lane bro,” worked its way into popular jargon in the last few years. In my experience, it is used more often by those 30 and younger in a jovial context among friends. I interpreted the phrase as a catchy way of chiding a friend about one’s superior command of an area of expertise. What harm could there be in that? A little good-humored ribbing among friends. But context is important. Recently I heard the phrase used in my professional life and I found the use in a professional education setting to be disconcerting. This incident passed and I did not encounter the phrase in my professional life again. It seemed just a momentary blip on my radar of concern. Then, in a recent conversation with a colleague, the phrase came up in our discussion about school innovation. She was bothered by the “pervasive” use of the term in her district. The context was in teacher to teacher, administrator to administrator and administrator to teacher conversations. This I found alarming but I also know that new phrases can often be misinterpreted by the “older generation” (that's me.) I decided to investigate to get to the true meaning of the phrase and look for its place in the professional education setting.

According to Merriam-Webster, stay in your lane is used as “a term of admonishment or advice against those who express thoughts or opinions on a subject about which they are viewed as having insufficient knowledge or ability.” The phrase became prominent in 2018 when it was used by the National Rifle Association to criticize emergency room doctors for their stance against gun violence. Doctors shared their stories under #ThisIsOurLane. Already, the popularization of the phrase is much more interesting than I anticipated. But what does it really mean and how is it used in different contexts?

Meriam-Webster did the research. The “lane” one is to stay in is an “area of expertise.” That makes sense in all contexts I have experienced. Early figurative use is traced to sports, specifically football, in the context of focusing on your assignment in a play. According to Urban Dictionary, it means to “mind your own business” and “don’t veer over into my personal affairs.” Eric Berkowitz puts a positive spin on the phrase in a post on the Forbes Website. He makes reference to football and each member of the team is focused on completing their job. He sees it as an important reminder for his sales team but cautions, ”I do think it’s important to not take this too literally. The last thing you want is for your team to feel like they are cogs in a machine. Staying in your lane is one thing, but you never want someone to feel like they are stuck in traffic.”

So I think I have the meaning right, “I know much more than you do about this so keep your opinion to yourself,” and as with most verbal communication, context and tone convey as much meaning as the specific words used. So where does this phrase fit in the education profession? When would a teacher saying to another teacher, “I know much more than you do about this so keep your opinion to yourself” indicate that a culture conducive to learning was present? When would an administrator saying to a teacher, “I know much more than you do about this so keep your opinion to yourself” indicate that a culture conducive to learning was present? When would an administrator saying to another administrator, “I know much more than you do about this so keep your opinion to yourself” indicate that a culture conducive to learning was present? When would any of these interactions represent the modeling we want to provide for our students? I don’t see a scenario within our professional interactions that this phrase is appropriate, no matter the context or the tone. It represents the antithesis of what it means to be part of a learning community. I can’t imagine someone with true confidence in their abilities using it to keep a colleague from sharing their ideas. I have often found that someone new to a particular topic, looking at a problem with a fresh set of eyes and having a background in a different domain, can see a possible innovation that had been right in front of the “experienced” group or individual. These interactions are the life-blood of innovation and essential for our schools to become the type of learning organizations our students need.

I may find a situation where I will tell someone to “stay in their lane.” My guess is it will be with one of my high school buddies or one of my brothers. I will probably be barbequing. Hopefully, the delivery will be good and we will get a good laugh out of it. But that is where I will leave it. There can be no “lanes” in a professional learning community.

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