As a type A sort of person, I really appreciate labels. I like to label everything in my classroom. It makes it so much easier to put everything in its place. I know what to expect when something is labeled. I have a spot for everything with a label. I even get excited when someone gives me office supplies that include labels! Labels everywhere!
What I don’t like to label though, are my students. I find that as teachers, we are all too willing to label our students. I understand why. It helps us understand them better. We know what group to put them in for reading. We know just how many minutes they get Math help each week. We see the labels: Poor reader, Autistic, struggles with math, bad behavior, low income. We label by race, sexuality, religion. Sometimes as teachers we see these labels and we make a judgment about the student. These labels can limit our field of view when it comes to what our students are capable of.
As a special education teacher who works with students that struggle with social, emotional, and behavioral disabilities, I am often approached with this sentence: “I have a student that needs to be in your class.” Well then. It really is usually that abrupt. I follow up with “What makes you say that?” “Well this kid never listens. He never does any work. It’s holding the rest of the class back.”
It usually takes me a few seconds to digest this. Do I have kids in my class that don’t listen? Sure I do! Do I have kids that struggle to complete any work? Of course! Does my instructional momentum get held up with behavior difficulties? Daily. Not every student in my classroom necessarily belongs there. Often I am a catch-all for kids whose square pegs don’t seem to fit into any round holes. When we assign these labels, we often lose sight of the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that these are all OUR students. Not mine. Not yours. Ours. These kids are not going anywhere, and it is our job to help them together. When we label our students, we assign them to a place that they often cannot get back from. One study in 2014 showed that only 60% of students with disabilities graduated high school. I often wonder if the label they most likely received while young predetermined the outcomes we thought possible for them.
In an ideal setting, the labels would be irrelevant. While it is incredibly helpful to know if I student needs supports because of a disability, wouldn’t it be better to look at each student individually, and provide them support tailored to them, without the label? Instead we can identify students by the progress they make instead of the skills they are lacking. If I am doing everything I can to make sure each child graduates on time, the only label that matters is “student”. How can we all better make sure this happens? I would love to hear your feedback.