Voices in Education

Remove Labels and Redefine Student Success

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Students learn differently, are motivated by different things, and are not one size fits all cogs in the wheel of school. It is not our job as educators to place a fixed label on students. It is easy to say that a student is a “troublemaker” and “will not succeed.” In fact, it is comfortable to make a referral based on behavior to special education so “that kid” is no longer a “problem” in the classroom. It is convenient to section the classroom into the “A” students, the “average” students and those who will fail. Labels are the basis of society, and once someone is branded or tagged, it sticks with them for life. One either wears the label forever and lets it define them -- or uses it as a catalyst to redefine boundaries.

Finding (and Expecting) the Best in Every Student

In my teaching program, it would make my skin crawl to listen to my colleagues talk about “those kids.” The reference is to foster youth who, in their viewpoint, do not have a future for success. “Those kids,” because they don’t have parents at home pushing for their success. “Those kids,” because they are destined to be delinquents. “Those kids” because how could they even succeed when they don’t care? They are viewed as not even standing a chance towards a good future and therefore don’t deserve time from the teachers. “Those kids” were just place holders. I found myself getting frustrated and disengaging as I knew I was/am one of “those kids.” I finally snapped and stated that “those kids” deserved a chance because you never know how you could impact them. “Those kids” each have a name and a story that would probably bring you tears. “Those kids” are making sure that they get an education and deserve to be called by their names and seen for their abilities instead of what they lack. After I was finished, I saw the disbelief and shock -- and heard the clucks of sympathy. I realized that for “those people” who surrounded me, labels would be a guiding factor in how they guide or lead their classroom and I was immediately saddened.

There should never be a statement that starts with “those kids” to refer to socioeconomic status, family life, color of skin, behavior or disability. “Those kids” all have names, unique abilities, and defining factors that will always shape and color their world.

Embracing Each Other’s Different Stories

Everyone has a story to share that could begin with a label but ends with success. This label more than likely came from a teacher or a student in the classroom. This label stayed and shaped the student for the rest of their life. It might help if we were to think of a student’s self-image as wet cement. Imagine that each of our responses to him/her leaves a mark and shapes his/her character. Over time, the cement “hardens” with our messages firmly embedded - it could even dictate future behavior.

Everyone deserves the innocence and the magic that learning can bring. Everyone deserves the desire to hide in their closet with a flashlight under a sheet reading a book. Each student deserves to feel like their reality slips away when they come to school. My hope and wish is that every student of mine will be transported into a world that is special and magical, almost like Alice in Wonderland. They go down a rabbit hole as they open the book or walk into class and become part of something amazing and extraordinary. They are an integral part of that community. They have a job and they have a voice. Most importantly, they have purpose within the four walls of the classroom. They can be silly, they can create, they can learn. There is no expectation to be a certain way.

Prepare Students for Any Future

It is our job to find out what our kids are good at and celebrate that, and put it to good use rather than always trying to fix them. It is important that our students are emotionally healthy; that they understand right from wrong; and they can express themselves. These strengths matter and can easily get forgotten when trying to hit standards and requirements.

Kids put so much pressure on themselves and, parents put pressure on them as well. We must be sure that, as educators, we help to keep things in perspective. No one knows what the future will bring, what jobs will be the highest paying, what skills will be most valued. It has been said that we need not to prepare our students for the future, but prepare them for any future.

The Power of “What If”

What if I told you that damage does not define you? Or if I said that fairytales did not always have a perfect ending? What if I said that the way you survive(d) is no one else’s business? What if I said that being (insert something here) does not mean that you are going to fail in life? What if I said instead that you had a chance and asked you to define success? What if I said that the clothes you wear do not make you successful or how much money you spend on Christmas presents does not make you better than anyone else? What if I said that dreams do come true with hard work and effort? What if I looked into your eyes and said that you were good enough? What if I saw that you were excelling in something and offered you a related job or a way to strengthen that talent? What if I stayed in the moment, instead of looking toward a future that may or may not seem real to you? What if I gave you a choice in what happens next instead of seeing all the mistakes that happened in the past? What if I did not care that you were successful beyond the interaction we are having right now? Would that be enough? Would that give you a chance to get on your feet, dust off the dirt and move forward? Would you take that opportunity and run with it?

Labels can be difficult to remove but it is never too late to change and become aware of the impact. Never too late to realize a negative perception you may have of your student, yourself or a colleague and to work to “re-frame” that image. People are not static pieces of clothes and should not be labeled or tagged as such. 

I am starting to realize that it is our job to help them be successful now, to be leaders now, and to embrace their strengths now. Because no matter what, there is no guarantee for the future. It is our job to teach each student to be healthy, happy, good people, because being happy and being a good person, never goes out of style.

Meghan Kestner

Meghan Kestner Special Education Teacher Twitter: @spedteacheriam

I am a special education teacher. I don't believe in labels or excuses but empowerment, growth and opportunity for each and every student. Each story is a chance to learn and can contain a meaningful lesson if we just take the time to listen.

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