Student A: “They just called us a bunch of nerds.”
Student B: “Okay but what does that even mean?”
Student C: “Well it’s basically a compliment to me, nerds are smart people who don’t get in trouble.”
Student A: “I don’t think that’s what they meant.”
Sound familiar? Overheard during supervision of the Wanderlust Club, this group of 12 year-old, future travelers paused their best-spring-break-vacation debate to reason through this recent social interaction. Sitting at my desk across the room, I couldn’t help but relate to their quandry, and realized all too little has changed.
Labeling students, enforcing those labels in the name of efficiency, and moreso, supporting stereotypes, will continue to prevent children from reaching their potential.
The Breakfast Club
I think the situation is too complex to be reduced to the category of name-calling, a proverbial playground problem in which the educator in all of us can picture ourselves pulling some children aside to parley about feelings and then releasing them back into the social frey. To label goes beyond a word of action and becomes an afixed noun, something in which the wearer often has little control in donning and often less in likelihood of removal.
Many of us remember the end of the John Hughes cult classic in which the teenagers depicted in the film pronounce that
“…you see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…and an athlete…and a basket case…a princess…and a criminal.”
This was, and still is, a powerful statement because no matter how dramatized for cinematic response, audiences continuously identify with the feeling of identification, categorization, and subsequent dismissal, some with deeper wounds than others. This final speech highlights a cultural realization of a cycle that still wants for disruption.
When we label, we diminish. We take a beautifully complex organism and define it through limited, categorical means. Who wants that for their child? Or anyone’s children?
— Last Exit To Nowhere (@LASTEXITshirts) March 24, 2017
For Whom the Data Tolls
We’re told that students can be assessed in such a way as to tell an educator exactly who that student is as a learner and what the student needs next to meet their next benchmark. I don’t think so, or at least, not yet. I think that, largely, the assessment systems in general use data to further divide students into levels, traffic light colors, or other categorical derivatives in the name of efficiency.
Please don’t misunderstand, I am absolutely pro-assessment, believing so far in the normalization of the process that I advocate for assessment as learning in instructional design. Specific, planned measurement informs greatly. In a time when most school systems must do more with ever-tighter funding, assessments, both formative and summative, can be the second greatest tool a teacher can skillfully employ to reach all students.*
My argument is that when we use results for anything other than the individual student that achieved them, when the words “high kids” and “low kids” enter the discussion in any way, we make broad assumptions about other variables that at best could be somewhat helpful but at worst, entirely compromise efficacy. While many are quick to tout aggregate data as means to cut through emotional attachments to outcomes, there is plenty of room to seek effective and powerful means of analysis of individual portfolios of assessments that will personalize the user experience.
You are What I Think
Studies find that not only do instructional delivery choices influence student learning but the unspoken expectations of teachers have a significant effect on achievement. Teacher biases influence interactions which extend or retract opportunities for students largely unaware of the filters to which they are subjected. For every collection of the “loner” “nerds,” and “tier 2s,” you’ll find a group of students reduced in expectation to a filter driven by another person’s experience and perception. Studies show that educators see color, ability, race, orientation, and data undeniably highlights the consequences of that sight.
While it isn’t probable that you can eradicate your biases and will every child into exponential success, it is possible for you to bring the energy of growth and hope. Each moment brings a choice in which you can examine your interactions and remember that good things happen. Educators have work to do that eliminates destructive labeling practices and promotes each child receiving a quality, tuned, education.
Student C: “What do you think they meant?”
Student A: “That they are better somehow.”
Student B: “Okay but why not just use our names?”
Student A: “Names are actually who you are. Calling names is when you don’t care who someone actually is.”
The High Road
Beyond how we consciously and subconsciously treat students, we do it to each other with a ferocity that undermines our industry of caring. We must remember that students follow our lead, more often than we realize. If we call our colleagues anything short of professional address, we teach students inappropriate means of addressing one’s peers continues in adulthood, prolonging unhealthy and superficial social interactions.
The next time we are tempted to refer to someone as a paycheck guy, bossy, or flippant, we have the opportunity to flip our script. Adults hold the ultimate responsibility in schools with regard to treating others with dignity and respect. What we learned about using affective statements and restorative practices can and should be used when relating to our coworkers. We can reflect on how the assumptions we bring about others can actually impede our ability to collaborate and therefore shortchange our ability to teach as a collective, supportive staff. When we mess that up, we can publicly own it. Choosing courageous conversations and engaging in healthy conflict management are not only chances to model how interpersonal relationships should be, they will lead to a stronger culture among adults which will affect learning.
A Rose by Another Name
Kind. Leader. Peacemaker. Collaborator. Friend. Even ‘nerd’. It’s true, names can be considered a good thing, depending on the user and recipient. There is something to be said for giving people metaphorical badges they wear proudly, happily identifying with a desired group. Countering negativity with a focus on the opposite can be an effective means to stomp out a culture that harms rather than supports.
Further, there are many movements to expand inclusion in some of these names which have historically been reserved for students of privilege to an increasingly wider pool. In some cases, categorical limitations are slowly being erased by focused efforts to inclusion. After facing extensive exclusion, girls are able to access STEM experiences and turn their strengths into future ready skill sets to take to burgeoning careers. These females are now enjoying names previously out of reach as the up and coming programmers and engineers we need to join our workforce.
However, while there are many successes, we have yet to erase the damage caused by exclusionary practices in education. If we aren’t cognizant of how students relate to labels, we can do harm regardless of intent. When the “A student” fails a test, when the “talented athlete” misses the ball, what once was a point of pride now feels like an il-fitting garment and means for critical self-evaluation. Further, students in underserved populations often are left out from positive labeling due to marginalization, even by those with a positive intent. These students experience systemic stress as a result of discriminatory practices, often developing coping mechanisms that further inhibit performance.
I really need for educators to stop labeling students "high" and "low." It's a damaging shorthand that I think strips students of their identities and dignity. Instead, I think we need to be specific, "I noticed student A struggled to write a complete sentence in sixth grade"
— Kit (@MrKitMath) September 8, 2018
Our jobs as educators are tough and the temptations of efficiency loom as we compare our workload to the hours in a day. What may have started as a means to streamline grading, seating charts, and parent conferences may have morphed into an ingrained habit to help compartmentalize our role in a large and complex system. If in self-reflection you can identify times when a label has interfered with your ability to see a student as an individual, there are means to change your practice.
For a start, consider labels given to you. When did they feel like a fit? When did they hurt? Who might you have been without them? Engaging with our backstory might unearth connections to social dynamics we didn’t realize are affecting our practices.
Next, note when you use a label on a student, whether on your own or in group discussions. Call yourself on it. Erase the damage, and do what it takes to prevent recurrence.
As you build your confidence and find that humble baseline, share what you are doing with others. Some peers may want you to help them identify issues within their own practice and while others will do the reflecting on their own. Either way, be the change, and slowly turn the rudder..
In your classroom, get out the proverbial (or literal!) popsicle sticks. In short, examine the times in your teaching when instead of drawing from the diverse body of students you serve, you instead choose the same students to showcase. Or chastise. Ask a colleague to sit in and take notes on who you call on during discussions or which desks you visit during worktime. Find those means, whether a hat of names, rotating classroom jobs, or student-driven choices, to remove your unconscious biases from classroom opportunities.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m by no means finished using a critical eye on my own behaviors. The work is critical, and it’s just begun.
Student C: “Someone else doesn’t get to tell me who I am.”
Student B: “You are strong enough to get that, but just think about everyone who isn’t.”
Student A: “Like me.”
*Relationships, relationships, relationships, in case you were wondering.