By Dawn Taba
Just a small sampling of the names I’ve heard used to describe students in my 16 years of teaching:
These labels can be seen as a form of praise or as a means of identifying students who need extra help, but what else do these labels say? What exactly do these labels do for a student? What do they tell the parent of one of these students? Or the teachers of this student? Is there a point when labels loose their helpfulness and start becoming more harmful? Is there a point when the student starts believing in the labels rather than simply believing in themselves?
In Hawaii, our communities can be very small and close knit. Especially here on Kauai, it seems that everyone knows everyone else. Teaching in a small community can exacerbate the problems inherent in labeling students. I hear it time and again in the school circles, “that must be so-and-so’s brother” or “so-and-so’s sister” followed up by “I hope they’ll be as [insert positive descriptor] as their older brother/sister!” Although unintentional, I imagine the pressure this could place on the younger sibling, to live up to or exceed expectations. Even for an older sibling, knowing they are essentially setting the example and feeling like they must always live up to some idealized version of themselves. Often, this pressure makes the student feel that they must be the label regardless of who they really are.
Teachers sometimes try to make connections to students by initially finding the “labels” that fit them. Who are they related to? What did their previous teachers think about them? Are there any red flags that I should know about? For many years, this was the exact way I would begin my school year. I would get my class lists and go over each name, checking out who their parents were, trying to make connections. I would share my lists with teachers in my department to see if they had any “insider” information they could provide so that I could best prepare for what was to come. Sometimes the information would be positive, many times negative, but either way, it made me feel ready. I thought I knew these students by how I could label them. It made me feel like I KNEW what was coming and that I would be ready for it.
I began to examine my methods and motives when I became a parent myself and when my children entered the public school system. The idea of labeling students and the effects of those labels became something I really started to think about as I noticed my children being labeled by adults at their schools. My daughter, who is four years older than her brother, has always been referred to as “smart.” School is something that she was undoubtedly ready for when she first set foot on the preschool playground. From the get go, she has been eager to please her teachers. Learning how to learn always came easily for her. She has always been a “model student,” in the highest reading groups, successful in math, while still being interested in the arts. She would come home with her report cards overflowing with MEs, Meets with Excellency, and received Super GLO Star awards every school year.
Naturally, a few years later when my son started school, he was expected to follow in her footsteps; he came in to school already labeled as “----’s brother.” The weight of meeting the expectations of that label have been hard for him to bear.
My son, the “model student’s” brother who has two teachers for parents, needs more direction and extra support. We have been told that he was showing up as “on watch” after universal screener testing and that he was also struggling with memorizing his multiplication facts. It was suggested that we look into maybe finding him a tutor or enrolling him in a reading program over the summer. He has come home with sheets of multiplication drills with hundreds of problems that we would work on until we were both in tears.
As we struggled through these piles of extra work, I began to think, is this what happens for every struggling student? Is this what every parent is told and expected to do? Or was this a result of his label as a “teacher’s kid?” Or maybe as the “model student’s” brother? How do students without teachers as parents even begin to navigate all of this?
I have realized that my own practice of labeling my students and having different expectations because of those labels is not necessarily helping. All it does is help ME to put students into boxes in my head. The boxes keep things neat and tidy but are limiting. Maybe these boxes were keeping me from allowing the students to possibly reach their full potential or to be their full selves. As I have transitioned into a position that is out of the classroom and deals with a bigger view of the school, it is apparent that teachers do this on a larger scale, as well.
As teachers, creating the boxes to place students in can sometimes assist us in finding ways to help them through their schooling. If a student comes to us as a “disadvantaged middle student,” it may help us to consider what programs are available at the school to encourage that student to succeed. In instances like this, it may seem that the boxes are simplifying our work to help these students. But in reality, these labels and boxes limit our work and limit the possibilities we see for our students, and therefore limit the potential of the students themselves. What good are these labels if they just leave our students wrapped up in little boxes?
Let’s ignore the labels and get to know our students for who they are, what they need, what they bring, and where they want to go.