Labeling Students Can Be Harmful

Teachers have a great responsibility. They are not only teaching young minds, but they are shaping the future. Some teachers don’t take the time to understand their students and help them to learn, just because a child may be difficult.


A young fifteen-year-old boy received excellent grades, but his teacher didn’t understand him and was not willing to, either. The teacher felt the young man was disturbing the class and was a troublemaker. Because the teacher was not interested in getting to know his student, he demanded the boy leave school because his presence disturbed the other students. Albert Einstein, a great physicist, quit school because a teacher did not take the time to misunderstand him.


My husband told me about a young classmate of his, whom the teacher had labeled “dummy,” simply because he was slow. The students soon picked up on it and the boy lived with this label until he left school. He didn’t really try hard to get good grades because of the label that was placed upon him. How would he have turned out if the teacher had labeled him something positive? What if he was labeled as “one who really tries,” “one who can create with his hands,” or “one who is kind to others?” This student might have grown up with a better attitude toward school, wanting to excel in life. He may have become an asset to the community if it weren’t for someone demeaning his character.


Professor Dan Olweus, from the University of Bergen in Norway, wrote, “A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and overtime, to negative actions.” Whether it’s from peers or a teacher, it can ruin a student’s self-esteem. Teachers don’t understand the harm they’re doing when giving a negative label to students. It degrades them in front of their peers. Once a student is labeled, it’s a stigma that stays with him for a long time.


I remember when my own daughter was labeled as a troublemaker, simply because she was an active child. Her teacher didn’t know how to cope with a lively child and had given her a negative label. This broke my heart and I didn’t know what to say or do. I realized that her self-esteem was being hurt. The following year, my daughter’s new teacher was an elderly woman who adored my little girl. She said that she realized my daughter had a tough time sitting still, so she allowed her to stand at her desk as she did her work. She said that it was working out wonderfully. Because of the love of a teacher, my daughter wanted to try harder. This sweet elderly teacher helped to boost my little girl’s self-esteem.


I had a heartrending experience that I never forgot. I was a substitute teacher for an elementary teacher. I had subbed for him before, but this day was different. This day something was definitely wrong and I was not sure what it was. As I moved toward the back of the room, I noticed a desk that was hidden behind a bookshelf. I peered around the corner and saw an eight-year-old girl resting her head against her arms.


I was surprised. Why was this student separated from the rest of the children? Why was she hidden behind this bookshelf… alone? One of the students volunteered, “Because she’s a trouble-maker, doesn’t do her schoolwork, and fights with the boys at recess.”


After excusing the children, I talked to the young girl. It took quite a while to soften her angry eyes and her rebellious attitude. But after a time, I had the young girl smiling. I moved the student’s desk up front beside my own so she could be near me. As the day wore on, I spent much time with this young girl, helping her, talking to her, having her pass out papers to the students. By the end of the day, I had grown to love this young student and my heart went out to her. She had been abused by her peers and was misunderstood, simply because a teacher had labeled her as a troublemaker. Therefore, her fellow-students incessantly reminded her of this fact. No one seemed to befriend her or show they cared.


At the end of the day, I was supposed to write a note about the young girl’s behavior so she could give it to her parents. After the class was empty, I packed up and walked out the door. To my surprise, the mother walked up to me with the note in hand and asked, “Did you write this?” After acknowledging that I had, the young mother’s eyes welled up with tears as she said, “Her teacher has never written anything positive about my daughter. I want to thank you very much.”


As a mother and substitute teacher, I am not perfect by any means and I have days of impatience just like everyone else, blurting out something in frustration. A teacher’s job is a difficult one and I know it. I appreciate what teachers do to educate our youth, but many times we have to remind ourselves that when we do blurt out something unkind, then we must humble ourselves and ask forgiveness. Children tend to forgive so easily.


This experience affected me quite a bit and I never forgot it, remembering that one of my own children had been misunderstood. I realized that negative labeling was something not only of the past, but was going on right now as well. A few months later, I sat down and wrote a historical fiction novel, “Melinda and the Wild West,” about a teacher that helps a young rebellious student and I included this experience, hoping to touch someone’s heart.

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