We Are More Than Our Labels

 “A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would be two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us.”

Kurt Vonnegut- Breakfast of Champions

I have been thinking.

I have been thinking about many things, but one of the things I have been thinking about the most is how little we know about anyone, while thinking all the while we know so much.

.We make assumptions.

We make labels.

When I was in school, I spent a surprising amount of time in detentions of one sort or another. Lunch detention, after school detention, “sit out in the hall and wait until I invite you back in” detentions.

I remember being shocked when a teacher made an off-hand comment to me that I was “always trying to get attention.” I was shocked, because I was trying to get attention! But why was no one paying attention to why?

When I was a child and a teenager, I was falling apart. I had a complicated home life, (And as any adult child of a complicated home life knows, I still have many complications with that part of my home life). More than attention, I realize now, I wanted help. I was lost and I wanted to be found. I wanted to know I mattered to people, that I was not a terrible person, that I was worth being cared for, and that I had a safe space to land. But what I found was that people just thought I wanted attention. How could I know to ask for what I needed since I didn’t know existed?

John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning and The Science of How We Learn, found that one adult in a child’s life can make a long term and lasting impact in that child’s self image and success. Sometimes a child has none. We can be the one. But only if we listen and stop assuming.

Sometimes teachers use words like: lazy, attention seeking, trouble maker, or bully, but to be the adult that makes a difference, those labels must fall away. All actions come with a message and we must see past those actions to find the child and the needs and desires within.

The Kurt Vonnegut quote above is one of my favorites for the idea that in each of us is a single unwavering band of light. It does not matter where we come from, what we have, what we want, we are worthy simply because we are.

This is our only job as teachers and as people, to see, truly see, the single, unwavering band of light in each of person in front of us. To look beyond labels and frustrations, to stop assuming and start asking, “What do you need? How can I help?”

John Hattie also found that it is our ability to empathize, to really feel the souls of the children in front of us, that makes us powerful educators. Some tips to help each of us do that:

  • Stop using labels when you talk about children, instead describe actions (don’t use the word bully, instead say, “she hits when she gets frustrated with how the game is going”)
  • Every action has a purpose, so ask, “what is the child trying to accomplish? How does this action serve this child?”
  • Use your empathy, the next time you see a child wiggle on the rug, or struggle through a math problem, visualize yourself in a similar situation and use that to help the child work through it- don’t diminish the child’s experience, accept it as their experience and help by sharing your own successful ways to cope

We are human beings, flawed and imperfect, but it is what allows us to have humanity. Be kind to yourself so you can be kind to children, accept that you are a work in progress so that you anticipate the same of your students, and see the unwavering light in your children, so they seek to see the same in others.

(Also, I know I am not the first to have these thoughts on this topic- look to Peter Johnston, Margie Carter, Deb Curtis, Vivian Paley, and others to think more deeply and powerfully about kids and our language and mindsets)

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8 thoughts on “We Are More Than Our Labels

      1. Your words stuck with me all day..in everything I did. So, when I was at the playground with my little granddaughter, your words helped me reflect and respond differently. Instead of labeling her behavior as inflexible when she announced loudly that another toddler boarding the fire truck slide ruined our play….instead of taking her aside and telling her that the playground equipment is for everyone, etc. etc. I described her actions in my head, she gets frustrated when she and I are immersed in imaginative play (I was supposed to be on lookout on the back of the truck- she was driving) and I start talking to another grown up and child. I thought about what she was trying to accomplish….playing with Nana…completing the rescue…l used empathy- what parallels were there in my own life? It would be like being at Starbucks with my closest friend, immersed in a conversation that was very important and private, right at the juicy part..some stranger comes up and plops down at our table, and my friend starts talking to them and expects me to be enthusiastic about joining in on the conversation. What a completely different lens to look through!

  1. Another thoughtful post. Like you, I also lived through detention, and principal visits, and hallway retreats (but I think rebellion is a good thing; it’s a form of survival in some instances). When my students learn that I was an imperfect student, I think that just made me more real and human to them. Thanks for this reminder, and for highlighting our use of language when speaking about students. Constructive feedback is one thing, but judgment is another. Thanks Kristi!

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