Some degree of labeling is natural in a teacher’s mind. On the first day of class, each student begins to make an impression. Their behavior indicates who is talkative, who is more reserved, who likes to joke, and so on. The process of categorizing students is necessary in part because it helps us anticipate their needs and interact with them. However, one danger is allowing those mental labels to confine students to certain roles.
Initial impressions can be strengthened or challenged as time goes on, but even if a certain impression is accurate, the labels should not limit our expectations in any way. Every student deserves a chance to grow as a learner. That means “weak” students should be encouraged to complete all assignments, with no slack given, only a decent amount of support so that she or he can meet class standards. “Strong” students should be pushed to test their limits; no one should stagnate especially if it is the equivalent of resting on one’s laurels. If some assignments prove to be easy, include bonus challenges to help these students strengthen their existing skills. At the same time, a “model” student should not be denied an off-day. Mistakes are a part of learning, and not even the brightest or most diligent student should be burdened with the label of “perfect”. As for the “natural leaders,” do not allow them to dominate group work either by their own initiative or at the invitation of others. Periodically, assign a low-key role to teach them collaboration. The so-called good student may have a lot yet to learn about teamwork.
As you push students to grow as learners, you are challenging both your own private labels and likely their self-image as learners. The self-proclaimed “slacker” who never did homework in the past may start making the effort in your class with your support and persistence. As a result, she makes progress, experiences satisfaction, and no longer feels like a “bad” student. This last change alone is a catalyst for further progress. There may also be a student who admits to being a writer by nature and avoids speaking. As you gradually demand more oral production in class, he may learn not to fear those mistakes that are beyond the reach of an eraser. Ideally, the student himself will cast off the label of “the quiet one”.
Closely tied to a student’s self-image is the label peers give. This is why the categorizing we do as teachers must remain a private, mental practice and not a process openly shared. Encouraging use of labels among students has only negative effects. The “funny” student in the back can feel confined to the role of “class clown” and experience self-consciousness when trying to voice a serious opinion. “Good” students can easily be alienated for being the teacher’s pet, making the victims contemplate a weak performance for the sake of peer acceptance. “Bad” students may find it easier to live up to an image rather than challenge it.
In everyday places, we read warnings on labels. It seems in the classroom, however, labels do not give warnings; they often are the dangers.