Labels Hurt Students but it Happens
As a child, I was 'labeled.' I was one of the 'good kids,' one of the 'smart children' and I could have gotten away with pretty much anything had I not been so painfully shy. I learned very early that if I could keep up that label, homework could slide; I received special privileges and was the darling of the school. That was more than thirty years ago. It took me years to shake off the effects of this label, although it would be considered desirable by many. I learned on my own how to make things happen for myself and through my philosophical explorations; I became a strong, intelligent, highly ethical person, which is not what the label I received in school prepared me to be as an adult. Unfortunately, the practice of labeling students is still in place today.
As a former teacher and a parent, I see children labeled every day. Teachers and administrators, even parents, label these children as 'the good child,' or 'the bad kid,' or 'the smart child.' This is unfair not only to the child, but to his or her classmates as well. Children are very perceptive and they can pick up on a teacher's or parent's feelings toward them. This creates a bias, a prejudice that spreads to the other children and teachers while it pollutes the child's own image of him or herself.
There are no "Good" Labels
Even if a child has a, per se, 'acceptable' label such as smart or good, this can be destructive because the child has a tendency to place himself or herself above other classmates. It can also place undue pressure on the child to excel in everything. They forget to just be a kid. Additionally, teachers may tend to favor this 'good' child and let them slide on infractions of behavior and even assignment deadlines while peers may single them out as the 'teacher's pet.'
Also, and this may be the worst part, if one child is labeled as good then that means somewhere another child is being labeled bad. When you are placing labels on people you can't help but compare them to each other and that is perhaps the most destructive part of this entire process.
In sharp contrast to "the good child," the 'bad child' is looked upon as a menace to the classroom, a nuisance that must be endured and tolerated. This child may also be subject to increased disciplinary actions and even the most minor infraction can land him or her in the principal's office, detention, or the recipient of other disciplinary action. Teachers are less tolerant of the 'bad child,' and that prejudice spreads to the child's classmates. This child is doomed from the start because this attitude presents an environment that is not conducive to success. All the child sees is failure, therefore, he or she feels that is their destiny or fate.
Student Labels create a Potential for Bias
I have seen this again and again in the classroom. Many teachers see a child as one way or another and they are labeled. Once that child in labeled, it sticks with them unless someone steps in and stops it. Children should be celebrated for their strengths and they should be encouraged and guided to play upon those strengths. They should not be condemned because they have an unfair label. I am a parent and have been a teacher. I have seen children walk into my classroom carrying the burden of a label such as 'stupid' (yes, a teacher actually said this student was stupid), 'bad,' and even 'the model student.' I also saw all of these children fall into roles that did not allow them to grow and reach for more than they had already achieved.
I have seen teachers walk into a classroom that was notorious for ill-behaved students and they would write behavior referrals for the most minor infractions. I knew these children and recognized how unfair this was. I was the teacher who volunteered to take on this 'ill behaved' class and they thrived with the encouragement and guidance I gave them. I didn't let them slide on the behavior infractions and I expected a lot from them, but I was fair and they recognized that. They worked hard in my class and I rewarded them with praise and respect. I can tell you right now that my 'bad kids' were some of the best, coolest kids I have ever encountered. They are insightful, funny, smart and quick-witted people with value and a lot to offer the world.
Once you look through the behavior, not focus on it, and see the child beyond something wonderful happens, they blossom. I work to see the child and his or her personal gifts. That is my focus. The behavior is there for a reason, but I do not make that the center of my relationship with the child.
I have a daughter who is grown now, but as a child was epileptic with absence seizures and struggled with dyslexia. Sometimes homework and class work were a struggle due to her special challenges. Sometimes homework did not get done because she was just overwhelmed. One of her teacher's labeled her; they harassed and humiliated her in front of her classmates.
My daughter is very quiet and extremely shy and she loved school. She tried so hard but this teacher marred her experience. She lost some of her spark and stopped talking about how much she loved school and math. This math teacher single-handedly created an environment where my daughter no longer felt happy and safe. In that classroom, my daughter felt like a failure because of the vicious words and actions of just one woman.
Parents, take Action
All it takes is one teacher to ruin a child's educational experience and we, as parents, must stay ahead of the game and know just what is going on in our children's classrooms. My daughter had me, fortunately, to do damage control. I also strongly reprimanded the teacher as well as informed the principal of her actions. I got the strong feeling that my words fell upon deaf ears, but I didn't stop. I took it higher and kept pushing until something was done so that my little girl was no longer forced to endure this woman's abuse and harassment. She was moved to another class, but the damage was done. It took years to repair.
This is why I have written this piece, to bring to light the injustices that our children face daily in the classroom. It is time for us to take back our children's education and return equality and compassion to the classroom. Teaching is more than just a job; it is the impact on young lives that they will carry with them forever.