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Summer lesson for teachers: stop labeling kids

Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and on top of these challenges, they’re expected to temper their feelings and opinions in order to teach children without inserting their own bias. Tough job! As a mother of a rising Kindergartner, I know that my son can be a handful, and managing him along with 19 or more other kids who are just as rambunctious isn’t for the faint of heart. Seriously, God bless teachers.

My son was deemed “Most likely to be class clown” at his pre-K graduation. Other classmates were christened “Most likely to be” CEO, an athlete, a fashion designer and so forth — all more or less aspirational labels. And then there was my son, called to the front of the stage as the “class clown” in front of me (Mom), Dad, and both of his grandmothers. You could hear the groans from other parents in the audience. It was embarrassing. Tacky. And in the end, we realized just how insulting it was to us and to our son.

We felt this particularly because my husband and I had maintained open communication with our son’s teachers all year concerning his focus, all in an effort to help him learn the difference between play time with friends and work time where he needed to pay attention to the teacher’s lesson plan. So how exactly the two of his teachers put their heads together to come up with “Most likely to be class clown” as an appropriate award for our son during his pre-K graduation, a moment that was supposed to be sweet and sentimental, was, and still is, stunning.

That old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is just that — old, and false. Words do hurt, and those words in the form of labels hurt our children more than we realize, specifically when those labels serve to make fun of real challenges or disabilities (one recent example includes a Connecticut middle schooler with ADHD being labeled “most likely to be distracted.”)

What’s worse than having a child be labeled with a stereotypical or negative label is the undoing of that label — trying to overcome the trauma, doubt and pain associated with being called something derogatory, especially in the presence of others. I’m thankful that my son is only 5 years old and didn’t truly grasp the negative connotation that “class clown” has. But for my family, our doubts and concerns intensified about whether our son had been treated equally to his peers, or if he had been cast aside as just an unteachable “class clown.” Was that all they thought of him? That he was just a funny guy who made his friends laugh?

We shared our concern with our son’s teachers and the day care’s assistant director. Everyone was apologetic, except for one of his teachers, whose cavalier attitude and justification that “no one will remember that he got the class clown award when he goes to college” served as the last straw. We withdrew our son that very afternoon from a day care that he had attended since he was six weeks old. After that, how could we as parents trust that his teachers had our son’s best interest in mind?

Labels can stifle a child’s development, creating a situation where they can’t mature or excel beyond the label given them by someone else. They can anger the child’s loved ones, or set up unreasonable expectations, and they may be misunderstood.

Going forward, my husband and I agree that the best option is to advocate for our son (and all children, which is the very point of bringing this issue to everyone’s attention) to remain label-less — to let him grow and thrive as he enters elementary school. Along his journey, we'll continue to call out when even the good teachers make poor decisions that can have lasting effects on the children they teach.

As much as I truly appreciate and respect teachers, I’ll never be OK with teachers openly labeling children. “Class clown,” “teacher’s pet” — these aren’t OK. Ever.

Ashley Cheatham is communications director at a local non-profit; her email is ashleyfails@hotmail.com.

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