Spotlight On: Labelling

20 September 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 20 September 2019

Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Wise words indeed and it is important for students to take the time to discover who they really are.

It is easy for adults to label children, even from an early age. How many times have you heard someone say, “She is just so shy”? The impact of these words can be staggering. Yet, children change and develop significantly over time. Unfortunately, labels do have a tendency to stick.

School is a wonderful time of discovery for young individuals but labels have the power to assign traits and interests that are very hard to change. Each and every student is multi-faceted, with different interests, strengths, weaknesses and abilities. By assigning a simple label to a student, there is the risk of limiting her potential and inhibiting her ability to explore other aspects of herself.

To quote the ogre in Disney’s blockbuster movie Shrek, “We are like onions. We have layers.” It is impossible to try to give a label to someone that encompasses her whole being when there is such a multitude of dimensions to consider.

Teachers at Queenwood provide students with the opportunity to discover not only their strengths, but their weaknesses. We help the girls to recognise there are pathways to improve and to appreciate that these weaknesses (labels) are not permanently fixed.

Queenwood’s Catalyst Coordinator, Dr Rosalind Walsh, has warned us of the pitfalls of parents referring to their own limitations in front of their daughters and insinuating that these can be inherited, such as when a parent intending to express sympathy emphasises that they were never any good at Maths. This has a significant and potentially permanent impact.

Usually labels are comprised of one or two words such as ‘bright’, ‘clumsy’ or ‘introvert’. It is impossible to sum up a person in such simplistic terms when humans are complex beings with a wide range of skills and deficits that are forever changing and evolving.

Many athletic girls whom I have taught over the years resent being referred to as just ‘sporty’ when they possess so many other qualities that are equally as valuable. They may also be musical, kind, determined, optimistic and motivated just to name a few. But these other traits can so easily be overlooked. It is our job as educators to ensure we do not miss recognising and nurturing all of these traits.

One of my favourite experiences as an educator has been to work with students who are under-performing in a particular area such as grammar. Time after time, I have heard students say, “I’m not good at grammar. I just don’t get it.” However, children are not born with grammatical skills. Success comes from hard work, perseverance and a positive attitude.

At Queenwood, teachers go to great lengths to consider all of the characteristics of our students while ensuring we do not label individuals. Using a student’s profile, we tailor programs to suit each girl’s needs and regularly assess whether these have changed or evolved.

So what should parents do?

Parents need to be aware of the dangers of labelling their daughters and ensure their language communicates the most helpful message. Instead of saying, “Great swim. You’re a superstar!”, try taking the approach, “Great swim. All that hard training really paid off.”

Labels don’t allow our students the opportunity to grow and change. They can become the focus rather than trying to find a solution to a particular problem and, as we all know, labels can be wrong.

As the great tennis legend Martina Navratilova observed, “Labels are for clothing, not for people.”

Ms Simone Massie
Year 1 Teacher