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I once spent a week in a special ed classroom as a student. I loved it because I was finally in a class with my best friend (who had been labeled special ed because his English wasn’t perfect yet.)
Even he said, “You don’t belong here.” He was right. It was a clerical error, and administrators soon realized they needed to move me, and before I knew it I was back in classes full of students I had been around for my whole academic career. Nap time was over.
But my friend didn’t belong in special ed either. He wasn’t fluent in English yet, but he was fluent in Spanish because of the neighborhood where he lived for the past three years. He was fluent in French because he lived in France a year as a refugee, fleeing his war torn home of Eritrea. And of course, he spoke Arabic.
How did somebody who could learn this fast get labeled special ed? Even though there are many who benefit from this label because it means extra-support, and having a special ed designation can be a positive thing, at my school the label just meant classes led by apathetic teachers who felt like their students couldn’t learn.
The label tracked my friend for life.
Almost two decades later, I was standing in front of my own classroom. Last year I taught English to eighth graders, and some of them had labels that they couldn’t shake off.
I had a student in the class that I taught who had been labeled a “behavior problem.”
He struggled to stay in his seat. He loved to flirt with female students even during a test. And he wasn’t going to follow directions just because some teacher said he had to. He didn’t fight. He was just very disrespectful and challenging to keep on task. When you got through all that, he was a very smart kid and I wanted to teach him. However, he’d been labeled a behavior problem for as long as he’d been at my school, and he was very close to being sent back to his home school.
His mother was frustrated with the label. She knew he was capable of doing more than he does at school, but she also fully understood how he had acquired it. In fact, many of the behaviors he exhibited at school, he also exhibited at home. Especially not respecting authority. She was at a point where she didn’t know what else to do anymore. She said he’d be part of the juvenile justice system if he didn’t change.
I told her I couldn’t let that happen. He could be the worst-behaved student in my class for the rest of the year, and I still wouldn’t let him be returned to his home school if that meant his mom was going to have him “rehabilitated.”
Something changed. Maybe nobody had ever advocated for him before, or maybe he realized this was his last chance. But soon, he was moving towards being an A student. He was on the verge of having a new label — “college-bound.” That’s a label all students should have. In fact, that’s the label I worked to put on my students every day. Why? It’s simple, college-bound is the label that becomes a gateway to a dream job. College-bound is the label that becomes a gateway to possibilities for change.
My best friend still has never seen my children, and he rarely gets to see his own.
He slept through his classes because his teachers didn’t attempt to teach him anything. So of course he’s skill-deficient, and the end result is he has spent as many years behind bars as he did in school.
I wish somebody had stuck up for my friend, or had given him a different label. What’s in a label, you ask? A lot. Too much. It’s time to let them go.
Wesley Pepper currently provides professional development to K-5 teachers at The Fortune School of Education in California.