Learner labelling: Why teachers should be cautious

Educational Journey with EPHAT MUDENDA
BASED on several factors that exist in their everyday interaction with learners, some teachers label the children, whose performance in class and participation in school activities in general are affected by the way they are perceived within that environment.
Sources of information that teachers use to label the children include those that are termed first-hand and second-hand sources. In the first instance, a number of things affect the way one perceives his or her students. For example, from the physical appearance of a child under their care, a teacher may make a conclusion that one is a troublemaker, or that he or she is ‘dull’, or even that an individual is very intelligent.
Such perceptions are also sometimes derived from a child’s handwriting, or the way one speaks, that is, their accent, as well as how a learner handles classwork, homework and tests.
The second source of information for teachers – in regard to their students’ behavioural patterns – is simply hearsay. They learn about the behaviour of their learners from their fellow teachers, who openly talk about well-behaved children and those that cause them a lot of problems. Sometimes the learners may also talk about the negative or positive traits of some of their friends in class or school in general.
For those that have been inflicted with heavy punishments at one point or the other, such as suspension from school for a certain period of time, there are always records that serve as a point of reference. Therefore, it is easy even for new teachers to have an idea of children that are either bright, ‘dull’, or troublesome.
Because of such a scenario in any given learning environment, scholars have come up with what they call the labelling theory. Basically, this theory says that problems are problems because someone – usually one in power, such as a teacher – defines them as such. For instance, generally, eating one’s food in class is not inherently ‘bad’, until someone in authority (a teacher) labels it as bad behaviour that attracts a punishment according to the laid-down rules.
The label ‘deviant’ is attached to those that seem to be clinging to that which is regarded as uncalled-for conduct. Children who want to be regarded as being ‘cool’ may even accept and internalise this label. Such labelling-based on self-fulfilling prophecies usually operate to the detriment of students themselves.
Whole categories of learners, based on gender, tribe or background, may be written off as low or poor achievers, creating a frame of reference in which their areas of weakness are easily noticed and their achievements discounted. Some are individually labelled by simply being forced to believe that they can never manage to pass a certain subject. As they are internalised, such labels are transferred into new situations, including college and university education, and one is likely to continue being an under-achiever at a higher level.
So, this self-fulfilling prophecy starts with the teacher, who has different expectations for different individuals in class. He or she expects children to perform in different ways. And because of the different expectations, teachers behave differently towards the children they teach. They smile at some pupils and exhibit an unfriendly countenance towards others.
Once the children know exactly what you think of them, their motivation is definitely affected, whether for good or bad. However, a student can either reject or accept the label. It is also possible that one can convince his or her teacher that they can be better than what they are perceived to be. The teacher can also play a role in complementing a learner’s efforts in changing the way other students and teachers view him or her.
It is, therefore, fair, logical and respectful to accept every child’s contribution in class, for example, without misleading them into believing they have the right answer when they do not. Being sceptical about your colleagues’ judgements may also help you see potential in a student and this will enable you to encourage that individual to do even better.
Finally, matters to do with labelling learners in schools, particularly in the classroom, are there to remind teachers of the things they should do and those they should stop doing against young ones for the sake of realising the best outcomes, academically and otherwise.


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