A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the power of words. It focused on the fact that the words that teachers use in a classroom can have the power to lift a student up, or tear them down. After writing the post I continued to think about the words teachers use, not their effect, but why they are chosen in the first place. Why do teachers label kids with certain words? Why does a teacher chose to label a kid a jerk? Why does a teacher label a student lazy? Why does a teacher label a kid unfocused, rude, disrespectful, terrible, or “doesn’t work up to their potential?”
I realized early in my career that teachers actually have the same students each year. After the first month or so all the students get shuffled into the roles of the previous year’s students and they receive their name. You have probably met some of them. There was Joe “Lazy,” Kathleen “Doesn’t want to work up to her potential,” Frank “Rude,” Mary “Her parents don’t even care,” Harold “Doesn’t care about anything,” Nicole “I waste my time with her,” Jerry “Never asks questions,” Helen “Doesn’t come back for extra help,” Greg “Never focused,” Melissa “Doesn’t Study,” and Carey “Needs to pay more attention.”
Those labels take the pressure off teachers. Why is Greg failing? It is because he is never focused. Why does Mary not pass in any homework? It’s because her parents don’t care. See how easy it is! If you give each kid a label and a reason for their actions you remove responsibility from the teacher to figure it out and place it on the student. There is no need to continue wondering what is going on and why the kid is having problems. Greg would simply do better in class if he just focused. After labeling we perceive all of their actions as coming from that label.
We fear uncertainty. Labels prevent uncertainty by predicting results. Label a kid a jerk and that is what he is, no need to figure him out—it is certain what the problem is. No need to figure out why the kid is doing what they are doing. No need to try and figure out how to help the kid. They are just a jerk.
Labeling a kid also changes our reaction to their actions. When we label a kid we place our emotional baggage into the label and into our treatment of the kid. We react to everything based on past experiences that we have had. It is nearly impossible to not do this unless you stop, and realize that is what you are doing. We interpret the students’ actions as being done to us. If a student doesn’t hand in work the teacher says “He did not do MY work.” If a kid says that a class is boring it is “He told me that MY class was boring.” Teachers take the actions of the students personally, their words and actions hit on the baggage that we carry with us that was packed by our parents, our teachers, and our previous life experiences.
It’s easy to overreact when we interpret every event as done to us. And then afterwards, when we think about the action or re-tell the event it is just as good as experiencing it again. The same emotions boil up again, the same hormones are sent raging through our body. Research has shown that imagining an event is just as good as experiencing it in person. When a kid does something to you that you find offensive, how many times do you replay it in your head before the next day? By the time you see the kid 24 hours later it is like they stabbed you in the heart 100 times over because your brain has gone through the same process when you imagined it as when it actually happened. We have placed so much meaning into the words they have used that we no longer possess the ability to look at the action clearly and make an objective decision. We replay actions over and over in our head, feeding some need for us to be right and them to be wrong. We not only assign meaning to the words based on our emotional reaction, but also we need to make us victorious in the end—we must be right they must be wrong. We need to stop and not react to our reaction, but to the actual words and the person before us.
Not only does our baggage influence our reaction to a past event, but it also makes us predict the future. Think about what type of kids you hung out with when you were a teenager…I bet that you have no problem with kids you teach right now that would be considered part of that crowd. Think about the kids in high school that drove you crazy, and I bet you have problems connecting with that type of current student. Personal note—without identifying the group, there was one type of student that I never connected with for my first 12ish years of teaching. I then realized it was because of my past baggage with this “type” of student. Since then it has never been an issue. Come on…if you weren’t a metal head growing up, when a kid comes in on the first day with a Slayer shirt it’s hard to not have any preconceived notions about how they will behave and perform in your class.
The reality is that most teachers were good little students from good little homes. They sat up tall in their chairs, did all their homework, were respectful to adults, followed the rules, and played the game of school very well. When they come across a kid who doesn’t it is so hard to see that kid’s perspective. It is hard to for their mind to grasp why a kid does not “do well” in school. In those cases teachers rely on something that they can grasp to make sense out of the student’s behavior…label the kid with words.
“Words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp.”