The Power of Labels


I think my mother has only lied once in her life, and that lie proved to be life changing. You see, when my mother was a child, her life was less than ideal. Having to change her last name five times in elementary school due to the five new “fathers” who came into her life was just the tip of the iceberg. Home was a place of fear and survival—a place where “I love you” was only heard if it was coming from the TV set. I’m sure even as her daughter, I only know the bits and pieces of her life that my mom thought I could handle.

For my mom, school was a dream world. When she walked in the doors to her school, no one knew that Vicki came from a scary world—a world she was ashamed of and felt deep down she was better than. And, that is why she told her lie. Quite innocently, and without foresight about the weight her lie held, my mom told her teachers that her real name was Victoria (which it wasn’t)…because Victoria was a queen. Nothing could be further from my mother’s reality than the life of a queen. So, at school my mother was “Victoria”, and the teachers took the bait.

She acted the part. She was prim and proper, completed all of her work, and the label stuck. Basking in the joys of the imaginary world she created and addicted to the stability and pride she felt, she kept up the charade—always keeping her dark reality a secret, even to her best friends. But slowly, what started as a lie became her new identity, and she graduated at the top of her class. And, although she now goes by Vicki, she continues to carry herself as a “Victoria” in all she does.

She was “that mom.” You know the one—the mom who looks at you sideways when you bring home an A- suggesting, “YOUR best is better.” Her high expectations never wavered, and the only thing that trumped her expectations was her obsessive and unwavering love for her family. My mom’s new label was so powerful and believable that she went on to create her own business, one that, like my mom, broke the mold in its industry. Some might even say that it has allowed her to live the life of a queen.

When I was a teenager, I overheard a conversation between my mom and a friend of hers that has never left me. Her friend muttered something about how “all kids experiment with alcohol or drugs at some point.” My mom, usually diplomatic, responded with assertion: “What an insult to our children,” she began. “To assume our children are not smart enough or capable enough or strong enough to make good choices is simply dooming them to fail. Our children most certainly can choose the life they want, and as the people who are supposed to love them the most in this world, it is our duty to EXPECT that they do.”

That conversation resonated with me. As an educator, I am profoundly aware of the role that labels and expectations play in my students’ education. A few years ago I was having a conversation with a coworker of mine about one of the students for whom I was concerned. I was looping with some students and was attempting to make an excuse as to why I would need to modify some of the expectations for a particular boy who not only lacked parent support but also often did not have a bed to sleep in at night. My teammate called me out. He said, “For that student in particular, it is even more important that your expectations do not waver.”

He was right. We get connected, know how hard life is for some of our students, and feel it is our job to lighten the load. But, in doing are we not setting them up for failure? Sometimes as teachers we allow labels to serve as excuses for what seems insurmountable. It isn’t that that challenging student of mine is incapable of learning the soft skills that least to success or mastering the content, but rather it is just so overwhelming and plain old HARD for me to help him reach that goal, especially with everything else this profession piles on our plates. But good teaching IS hard.

It is all too easy to succumb to labels. If a child is an English learner or in special education, we may tell ourselves that she is being serviced by a pull out program (someone else—the system—is taking care of it) to justify our inaction in the daunting task of helping her succeed. If a child has a bad attitude about school and seems apathetic, it is easy to say to ourselves, “Well, no wonder. Look at his family life.  He was doomed from the beginning…Poor guy.” We pity these students for one reason alone: because it is easier to pity their reality than to change their fate.

But, just like my mother said, when we spend more time feeling bad for students and justifying their lack of progress than helping them to create a new path, we are insulting them. We are essentially saying to students as young as six and seven, “Bummer. You have been dealt a hard hand…so hard, in fact, that the thought of how to help you overcome it is so overwhelming that I don’t know where to start. Thank God you are labeled “attention deficit,” or “emotionally disturbed,” or (fill in the blank) because if you weren’t, I would feel too much responsibility for your education. Thank God my mom was such a good liar.

Labels are so powerful. Everywhere in society we can see the benefits as well as the repercussions of labels (both low and lofty) that have been fulfilled. BUT, it is in our hands to create them. Not only is it in our hands, but it is also our responsibility. If we don’t take on that responsibility then we are insulting every student who walks through our doors.  How often do our actions and words brand our students? How often do they create writers, scientists, drug users, or drop-outs? How many of our students walk through our doors as Vickis wishing they were Victorias?

It is my belief that good teachers lie often. They whisper to students, “You are brilliant….” “There is something so special about you…” “You are one of my favorite students of all time.”  Lies, lies, lies… Or are they? After a while, we start believing our own lies. And they do too. For, they are not really lies at all. They are declarations of our students’ true identities. Affirmations that we, as their teachers, can see can see beyond their labels. Invitations and expectations to become the people they wish to be.

Just as my mother, lost and scared, could declare herself a “Victoria,” we too can declare our students scholars before the path unfolds. So, we get in our student’s face—the one society tells us to pity—and demand an explanation for the A- and love him (and “lie” to him) until he gets there. We demand excellence and respect from our emotionally disturbed student—the one who was in foster care after being abandoned by his drug-addicted mother—telling him that we do so because he is different from the people who surround him in his life. He is special, and we are somehow privileged to be let-in on the secret of just how great he is. We hand back papers over and over again with the message, “You can do better. You are destined to be great. I BELIEVE in you.”

And we MUST believe they can do it. We MUST feel responsible to ensure that they do. And the only thing that should trump our expectations is our obsessive and unwavering love for our students. In all aspects of our education system we need to create new labels: for our students, their parents, school staff and administration, our communities, our states, and our country so that  our beliefs can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

I have had some great mentors and teachers who “lied” to me too. With a nod in the direction of my less-than-ideal work and a knowing smile I couldn’t escape, they told me I was great, in spite of the fact that I was struggling, in an effort to bring that potential for greatness forth. I wasn’t sure if it was true, but all of us deep down want to be queens (or kings) just as my mother did. So, I fell for their bait. I believed their words because I so desperately wanted to matter.

Deep down, I think that’s what it all comes down to. We all want to matter: our students, our parents, our teachers, all of us. And, we will live up to that expectation: “talented student,” “supportive parent,” “great administrator,” “teacher leader,” IF it is being offered. What a gift. It makes us feel trusted and capable and willing to give all that we are to this profession and this world. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, we feel empowered…and we have more to offer than we ever knew. A belief in someone doesn’t cost a thing. It is time we start investing.

Changing our students’ fates is no easy task. But, it CAN be done. In this field of work, it is time to start expecting mountains to be moved, by ourselves as well as our students, because if we don’t expect it, who will? My mother moved mountains. It can be done. She told a lie—a lie that revealed the deeper truth of who she really was all along—a person of value. She changed her label. And, that little girl from a scary family has left quite a big footprint on this world. So big, in fact, that I named my daughter after her. Gracie Victoria.

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