Guest Writer: The Dangers of Labels

Dear Future Teachers,

We are excited to be introducing a second series to the blog this month... Incorporating Guest Writers! I love researching and writing blog posts, but I think it's super important to highlight and amplify the voices of other teachers, future and current. Today, I am happy to introduce my good friend and Line Sister, Elena Delvalle as she discusses the negative connotations of certain labels we use for students.

Hello Everyone! My name is Elena Delvalle and before we dive in, here’s a little about me: I’m currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in Human Development and Family Studies with a minor in Education. I’m from Lumberton, North Carolina, with roots in Veracruz, Mexico and Cartagena, Colombia. Like Emily, my goal is to become an elementary school teacher and combine my passions for teaching/learning with social justice to dismantle systemic injustices from within the classroom. I’m beginning the new Guest Writing series with a discussion about the dangers of labels.

Throughout the education classes I’ve taken at UNC, we’ve learned about the many labels a student can encompass, as well as how harmful certain labels can be. In my blog post, I am going to share my personal experience with labels as a student, as well as some things I think all teachers should keep in mind before placing a label on a student or accepting a label already placed unto them. I would like to note that I am aware that some labels are necessary to help students receive the help they need to meet their unique needs, but I am also aware that these labels are often misunderstood or stigmatized, which can become detrimental when the whole student is not being recognized.

Being Labeled as ESL

When I was in kindergarten I was unknowingly labeled as an English as a Second Language (ESL) student. This label followed me all the way up until my middle school years and affected how I navigated my education and my access to resources. I’m assuming I was labeled as an ESL student because of the combination of my name, my ethnicity, and my shyness in the classroom, but it was a label that did not belong to me. If my kindergarten teacher had taken the time to get to know me and my family, she would have realized that I actually grew up learning English and Spanish at the same time, but became more comfortable with English since it was my most predominately used language (even now my Spanish is accented and not as advanced as I want it to be!). I remember being pulled out of class and joining the rest of the ESL students with the ESL teacher in a trailer on the other side of campus. As I was raising my hand and participating, the ESL teacher asked for my name, checked her roster, and looked very puzzled. After assigning a worksheet for the rest of the students, she asked me to approach her desk and said “You don’t belong here” and sent me back to my class. I didn’t understand what was happening, as I didn’t even know what ESL was and never brought it up to my parents.

Around 2nd grade, my teacher noticed that I was “gifted” and helped my parents get me tested for the Academically or Intelligently Gifted Program (AIG). I started going to AIG for about two weeks, but then was abruptly told I couldn’t attend anymore. At first, I thought it was just cancelled, but then noticed that my friends were still allowed to go. My family and I were never given any explanation and since we didn’t really understand what the implications were we let it go. Now let’s fast-froward to 5th grade where I had another one of my teachers (Ms. Johnson) ask me why I wasn’t in AIG. At this point I knew what AIG was and had friends that had been going since the 2nd grade. It was thanks to this teacher that my parents and I were able to uncover why I had not been allowed to go, and what this meant for me. Ms. Johnson didn’t just talk to me and my parents, she also went to the administration and fought for me. She discovered that the ESL label had not been taken off my record and I was still in the system as an ESL student, which meant that I automatically did not qualify to be tested for AIG. She arranged a meeting between her, my parents, the administrators, and myself in order to remove this label, and re-label me as AIG.

WHEW! Now that I’ve told my story, I’m ready for the extra juicy part!

A Message for Educators

It’s important to note that throughout all of this I was the same person/student but the label(s) were different and these are what determined my outcome. Students are not their labels and their labels shouldn’t deter them from having full access to their resources. As teachers or educators, we should not let a student’s label determine how they are perceived. Beyond that, teachers and educators should also think very carefully before placing a label on a student. Programs like ESL may seem beneficial at a superficial glance, but can actually be more harmful than helpful for students, even if they are primarily Spanish speakers. Labels are also harmful because students realize that they are “different” or are being treated “differently” and this has a huge negative impact on their socio-emotional wellbeing, and relationship with school and learning. It can lead to a decrease in self-confidence, and to them feeling ostracized from their classroom, teachers, and peers. Like the labels, these negative feelings and implications will follow them throughout their education experience.

So, what can we do?

  • Embrace your students: it’s easy to accept a label once it’s on a child’s record, but take the time to get to know your students, their unique needs, and their unique personalities. Don’t let the label deter you from embracing who they really are.

  • Connect with their communities: We all know that learning and teaching is a group effort. In my experience, it was my teacher’s outreach to my community that helped us remove the negative implications from the misplaced label. Connecting with your students’ communities will be helpful in how well you meet their needs and in deciding how helpful/harmful a label may be.

  • Celebrate individual talents and accomplishments: Labels contribute to the creation of an environment of hurt and shame. These feelings can be combatted through the celebration of students. By celebrating our students and their accomplishments, we send a message of positivity, acceptance and appreciation, which can help combat the negative connotations associated with their label(s).

  • Avoid preconceived notions: There is a difference between meeting students where they are, adapting your teaching methods, or meeting their needs and deciding what their needs are based off of a label. It’s easy to accept a label already placed unto a student, which can lead to it affecting your perspective of the student and your expectations for them. Avoid things like lowering your expectations or prematurely creating an image of the student, especially if you have not yet gotten to know them.

These are only a couple of suggestions I’ve learned and I look forward to learning more and sharing them with you all!

Con Cariño,

Elena Delvalle