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“Words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp.”

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.”
Eckhart Tolle

13 comments

  1. Well written and presented. My first couple of years of teaching I was certainly guilty of doing this with the athletes in my art classes.

    One thing that can also happen is when we label those students in such a way in discussions with other teachers it can establish a “pre-existing condition.” The other teacher ends up having that student later and recalls the label and it’s easy to let them fall into that niche again.

    There really is a lot of power in that. I often have to remind myself that I was a lousy student in High School for various reasons. Empathy can be powerful.

    One should also note that labeling a student in the positive can be just as dangerous. If a student is known as “bright” one can easily overlook smaller indiscretions that would be pounced upon with the “lazy” student. At times we can be doing the “bright” student a disservice by not holding them accountable or expecting more out of them. Or in some instances expecting too much out of them because they were labeled “bright” in another subject.

    Good thoughts. Now you have me looking around my class and considering who I have unfairly tagged.

    1. Wow…never thought about the positive labels. Label a kid with a positive label and we are probably more prone to letting them get away with all sorts of things that we would never let anyone else get away with! Maybe “getting away with” is the wrong word choice. Are kids with positive labels given more room for error?

  2. You’re right; words do have the power to build up or to tear down. Some teachers assume students are lazy because they don’t complete assignments, and that is not always the case. Human beings do what they do for a reason. Educators need to go beyond teaching only content and educate the whole child for success. It’s probably true; teachers want to relinquish responsibility when the blame is put on the “lazy student”.

  3. Tēna koe e Paul!

    The word is a metaphor. The spoken word is closer to its meaning than is the written word, for being comprised of symbols, that too is a metaphor for the spoken word.

    Though it is said that “words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp”, I believe that the thinking skill that permits this grasping can be put to better use. I am convinced that humans used this skill before even the spoken word became a reality, otherwise how could they think?

    I also believe that language can obstruct thinking and of course language is made up of words.

    I sometimes look on words in the same way as I look upon tick-boxes, so I concur with what you say in this post. Choose the (optional) word.

    Teachers have the cognitive ability to rise above the tick-box mentality, if only they would. Unfortunately, the tick-box is such a common tool in teaching these days.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  4. Thanks Paul – I agree with your post, and would add that teachers don’t even need to verbalize the labels in order for them to have an effect. If you even find yourself thinking a label when a student approaches, you might as well have said it out loud. I have a chronic “not doing their work” student, and I don’t give a lot of homework – maybe one 10 minute assignment a week. I noticed that every time class would start, this child would come up to me to tell me that they didn’t have their homework question done… and it’s now at the point that when I see them walking toward me, I get a mental image of a bumper sticker that says, HOMEWORK NOT DONE…
    I’m going to try hard NOT to think that way when I see that student, and to get beyond the work not done to figure out why.
    Janice

  5. In my volunteer work with Cub and Boy Scouts I find it is hard not to put a label on kids. Even if I never voice it, the label is in my head. This usually is a negative label after they have done something bad or caused me some kind of problem, not once but many times. Yet I’m trapped in that role and have to keep working with them if I’m to keep on doing the good work and helping the kids that really want to be there doing what we are doing.

    (A number of the kids who cause problems really don’t want to be there doing that thing. It’s optional Scouts but some parents make their kids go. Or other times the kids want the social fun part but not the rest of the program. I can only imagine school teachers have the same issue.)

    Anyway my point in commenting is to say sometimes I hold onto the label when the kid has changed over time. They grow up so fast, in the elementary grade years, then change swiftly in the middle school years as puberty hits. Sometimes I’m thinking a kid is a jerk but really he is nice now. And a former hyper kid that was hard to handle is calm and happy. So I have to let go of some labels. It’s not fair to keep thinking of them in the bad way when they have moved on due to developmental reasons, growing up or whatever.

  6. This post really hit home for me. I am struggling as a building leader to make this point clear to some of my staff members. We are supposed to teach the whole child – that means accepting the whole child for whoever he/she is.

  7. Thoughts and words are a massive massive reduction , thoughts and words are so tiny compared to awareness that the mind cannot ever grasp it nor should the mind even try. Do you know who you are without producing a thought ??? The mind only knows form, are you rooted in being or lost in thoughts and things ?

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