Labels Are For Products, Not Students

I can remember sitting down with my team of teachers at the end of the school year, filling out a form that included all of the students’ names, academic abilities, behavior issues, etc. This list would be passed to the next team of teachers that taught these students the upcoming year. We included which students should be with which teachers… and who they should not be with the next year.

At the time, I thought it was a good idea. Now, not so much.  

Although it is important to have background knowledge on incoming students, we were doing a huge injustice to every single student on that list. If we listed that students were high achievers, those teachers expected nothing less of them. If we listed that a student struggled, the same expectations were set.

That just forces floundering students to continue on the same path.

Labeling students has been a thing for decades. “He’s a bad kid; don’t expect much out of him.” “She’s nothing but drama; be ready to call her parents every week.” As educators, we must rise above labeling our students.

Just because a student has difficulty in one grade level or class does not mean that student will have the same difficulties the next year. Oftentimes students are going through life-changing situations that teachers just don’t know about. You can’t just label someone a trouble-maker without even attempting to find the root of the problem. That’s an injustice to students.

I believe that it’s important that we share some information with upcoming teachers so they will have a background on students. However, we must be careful to remove the labels we’re often guilty of attaching. Our expectations, whether high or low, can certainly influence their outcome.

There’s one student that I specifically remember, whose name was Matt. His mother met with me the first day of school and told me how Matt was so bad at math.

“He’s not good at math because I’m not good at math,” she told me. Well, I happened to know that family and I knew Matt was a good student. I wanted to put him in my advanced math class and his mother was completely against it. He was too.

I asked her if I could put him in the class on a trial basis, and if he felt uncomfortable at all, I would move him into the next lower ability level class. She reluctantly agreed.

I was careful to only call on Matt to answer questions when I was certain he had the answer correct. He needed to build his self-esteem. After a couple of weeks, he was feeling very good about his abilities and told me he was glad that I insisted on placing him in the harder math class. I called his mother and shared that with her. She cried. She said she never believed he would be a good math student because she prepared him to be a poor math student.

Matt is now an adult, has graduated college with honors, and obtained a degree in mechanical engineering. Matt could have never achieved that degree without being proficient in math. If I had listened to his mother, and allowed her to place the label on him of a “poor” math student, I feel quite sure that Matt would have a different occupation.

We must be careful how we pigeonhole students into criteria. Labels are for products, not students. We are doing a huge disservice to them when we attach labels that could follow them the rest of their lives.


Photo by Travis Wise, CC-Licensed.

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