Public schools love identifying, categorizing, and labeling things. Like that perfect garage we all never get around to making happen, it’s satisfying to have everything neatly organized into cubbyholes that we can access without having to think too much. The chaos of our freshly laundered clothes cries out for folding, separating, and storing in rectangular drawers. But unlike garages and dressers, schools are populated with unique individuals who can be limited by the labels schools so casually stick on them.
Right away, we need to be clear that schools do need to differentiate based on scholastic abilities, innate characteristics, biographical occurrences, and physical limitations. We can’t just assign a wheel-chair-bound student into a non-adaptive physical education class. Someone with a learning disability which makes reading difficult shouldn’t be in an advanced English class. A girl who recently attempted suicide needs additional counseling that will mean getting pulled from class occasionally. Poverty, divorce, family illnesses, frequent relocations, and psychological conditions will all necessitate different approaches for those impacted by them. Something as commonplace as diabetes or peanut allergies should be acknowledged so that those in charge are prepared for any eventuality.
The fine line between understanding all these special circumstances and pigeon-holing is what we’re after here. Just because I have a learning disability doesn’t in any way mean that I’m exactly like every other person with a learning disability. This might seem obvious when presented in this black-and-white fashion, but in the ever-changing, always-busy world of a public school, in can be easy to forget about that and start lumping “types” together in order to make adaptations easier to apply. “Oh, you have (fill in blank with any difference that necessitates changes in the normal routine). Okay, then we’ll (plug in program or standard procedure whether or not it actually makes sense for this unique situation).” The Response to Intervention (RtI) component of the No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to provide for differentiated instruction based on individual needs, but has instead often led to blanket prescriptions with little attention paid to those individuals or their needs.
And it isn’t just those labeled as struggling in schools who wind up with negative outcomes. The “academically talented” (gifted, honors, and/or enriched) students also get restricted by their labels. Students with this designation are assumed to be functioning perfectly, leading to little attention paid to other aspects of their lives. Growing up is difficult no matter how smart you are in school, but while we pay an inordinate amount of attention to the academic part of honors programs; schools can be shockingly indifferent to the pressures these kids feel, both socially and from outside sources (especially parents). Yet, despite exemplary grade point averages, these students can fall victim to all the issues that confront teenagers today, from depression and suicide to drug addiction and acting out behaviors. Simply being labeled “honors” doesn’t mean that this child needs no attention ever again.
I got so sensitized to the labeling issue that I wouldn’t let my students refer to me as an “English teacher” while I was teaching. When they would demand to know what I “was,” I would respond that human was about the only categorization to which I would cop. They would then press me as to my profession, so I would tell them that I “taught English,” but rejected the English teacher label. To see what I mean, try this out: Stop right now and try to get a picture in your head when you read the term, “English teacher.” See what I mean? I wanted no part of the spinsterish, elderly, obsessed with routine and detail drudge image that label conjures up. (No matter how accurate some of those generalizations might be, I do want it stated for the record that I never wore my hair in a bun.) Of course we all recognize that not everybody who teaches English is like that and that we all have some of those traits to a certain degree, but humans tend to stereotype enough without our helping them out by jumping right into the cliché suit. I’m guessing that people in Advanced Placement classes wouldn’t crave the nerdish, naïve, glasses-wearing spaz picture the term “honors student” inspires, either.
Unfortunately, we’ll never stop people from generalizing about others based on certain characteristics. We can, however, constantly be on guard to help our institutions (like public schools) be aware of the dangers of lumping large numbers of unique individuals into limiting categories. Special education students, average students, learning-disabled students, gifted students, differently abled students, economically disadvantaged students, behavior-disordered students, and even English teachers all share one common characteristic: their uniqueness. When we start standardizing our treatment of individuals, we are guaranteed not to meet their needs. That is a truism every organization/bureaucracy needs to keep in mind at all times. But public schools above all others must be careful about stereotypes, and the indifference to unique needs our propensity to label can and often does lead.
For more on school reform, see James Crandell’s website http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.