Special Education Opinion

The Challenge of Leading in a Profession Where Labels Matter

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 10, 2018 3 min read
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We have established and work in a system that sets norms for student performance. At the same time, we have established, built, and work in a system that welcomes students of all abilities into our classrooms. We also established and work in a system that requires us to classify and label students in order to get them the help they may need in order to meet with success. There are expectations set for the age a student should be able to read with fluency and comprehension. There are expectations for the age a student should be able to understand the value of numbers and the operations that can be done with them.

We educate students who have been born healthy and others who enter school with challenges that effect their performance. We have students with developmental challenges and others who hit their expected milestones. We have students who speak well and hear well and read social cues well and socialize easily, who are well coordinated and outgoing. We have students with homes that are supportive and understanding and we have students who have families under stress. All of these differences do not match the lines all children are expected to cross. Yet all of the differences make success possible for more and more children and that is our mission.

The Challenge for Educators

The difficulty lies in mediating the arbitrary, but important landmark standards, and the variability of children’s readiness to meet them without the adults using labels to separate. We all know that when students were separated into reading groups ‘back in the day’ that were called names like Robins and the Blue Jays. Students knew which group was the ‘top’ group. It is not realistic to expect that there is any effort that can avoid the effect of identification of being smart, good in a specific subject, good at sports, favored by teachers. It is realistic to expect that we can temper the habit of identifying students with limiting mindsets. We can do better.


Here is what the general public doesn’t understand about the challenge facing educators. The variety of our students’ readiness, abilities, family situations, limitations and gifts make it so teachers are dealing with any number of different learners at any given time. In general, schools graduate students who have met standards no matter their learning differences. Schools lose some students too. Students who don’t make it can be students with personal challenges that overpower their learning. They may have slipped through the cracks or simply failed to respond to the help offered.

A Message That Remains

We also lose students another way. How students are treated and thought about, labeled and supported or not sends a message that remains. If we believe they can learn and succeed and communicate that in our actions and words, that makes a difference. Just ask any adult if a teacher made a difference in their life and in the answer is that they were believed in, supported, and encouraged to succeed. It is in the minds and words and actions of the teachers working with all students that the bridge between those arbitrary standards and the varied learning needs of their students.

Just spend a few minutes on Facebook or twitter or the even the evening news. Labels are tossed about as insults or to communicate good and bad, who is with us and who isn’t, who is trustworthy and who isn’t. It is easy and it is harmful. It is misleading and it reduces complex discussions and the search for meaning to a single word. We educators can’t do that in our work. Too much rests upon our ability to assess the meaning of the label and to integrate it into our decision making to benefit a student. Labels should support and inform, not harm. It’s just another way we can lead the culture of the moment.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by ambermb courtesy of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.