Learning from Children

Advice to New Teachers on the Dangers of Labeling

By William Ayers

Our youngest child came into our family when he was 14 months old — unexpected, unannounced. Chesa was set adrift when his biological parents could no longer care for him, and after a short stay with his grand-parents, he came to us.

For a long time he was an easy child — agreeable, eager to please, perhaps a bit compliant. He was never fussy, never demanding. On the other side, he never displayed much enthusiasm: his play lacked commitment and his explorations of the world were tentative. He watched his new brothers at play — one almost four years older, the other just a half-a-year older — but he joined in rather reluctantly. He was subject to every sore throat and ear infection that came near him, and both his physical strength and his affect seemed to be at low ebb. He was downcast, depressed. Later his depression gave way to an explosive anger, often self-directed. He was clumsy both physically and socially, and he would frequently crash into people and things — often hurting himself or angering others — and then genuinely wonder what had happened.

Chesa also had qualities that could help him negotiate and take control of his life. One was dogged determination — a willingness to work and work and work at a task or a challenge until he succeeded.

When his mind was set he never gave up and he never gave in, no matter what. Other qualities were his keen intelligence and his steel-trap memory. His telling of events or conversations were filled with color and nuance. Finally, he could be incredibly compassionate and unexpectedly generous. Each of these, of course, could be experienced two ways: his iron will could be seen as stubbornness or resoluteness, his memory as acute or obsessive, his sweetness as strong or weak. As he set off for first grade we were painfully aware of the two-sided way Chesa might be experienced. There was the matter of anger and temper, and the highly visible issue of plowing into people. Who would his teacher see coming through the door? How would she know our wonderful child?

We were lucky: Chesa’s teacher was a young man named Kevin Sweeney who admired his strengths and quickly figured out interesting and clever ways to leverage these against his weaknesses. For example, he gave Chesa cleaning tasks almost every day, not the routine stuff, but tasks that tapped into his work-horse nature: “Chesa, could you wash these shelves this afternoon? Just move the paper over here and then use a bucket of soapy water and a sponge.” This not only focused Chesa on a goal, but it made a worthwhile quality more visible to the other children, and this, in turn, made him a stronger, more accepted group member. Furthermore, it provided the teacher with a steady reminder of something to value in Chesa, who was a challenging child for much of the day.

All of this came back to me recently when I was working with a group of ten-year-old boys in an inner-city public school. I showed them a simple structure for writing a brief autobiographical sketch or poem.

The first line is your first name, followed by a line of three words that describe you to yourself. The next line is something you love, then something you hate, something you fear, and something you wish for. The last line is your last name. I gave the kids an example:

I am Martin
courageous non-violent warrior
I love all people
I hate oppression
I am afraid of ignorance
I wish for freedom

Hannibal pointed out that I had left out “Luther” which was right, so we made the last line, “Luther King.” Now they made poems for themselves:

I am Hannibal
fluky but funny
I love the Bulls
I hate being whipped
I am afraid of Freddy
I wish for Michael Jordan to come over

I am Aaron
small, black, frightened
I love my mom
I hate being picked on
I am afraid of the raper man and the police
I wish for happiness

When I had asked his teacher if Aaron could join me for an hour this morning, as he had on other occasions, she had practically pushed him out the door. “He’s no good today,” she had said. “His mind is wandering and he doesn’t want to work.” Now I looked at Aaron again. He was small, frail really, and he did look frightened. He smiled a lot, but always apologetically, looking down, unsure. He never initiated talk or play, always reacting. His face was streaked, his hair uncombed, and his eyes were puffy and resting on large dark circles. Even in the company of other poor children, Aaron looked down and out. I wondered: Why is Aaron frightened? Who are the police in his life? What is the happiness he wishes for?

Talking with Aaron

As we talked about his poem and some of my questions, I learned that the raper man was a large character in his life, someone Aaron could describe physically even though he had never seen him. The raper man had huge hands and was ugly with big red bumps on his face. He drove an old, wrecked car, and he was often sighted by other children on the walk from school to home, so Aaron and his little sister mainly ran home each day. The police loomed : while he didn’t know any himself, two of his brothers had had frequent encounters with the law. Aaron told me a long story of one brother, James, who had been falsely accused of gang membership and was arrested in a playground “for just being there.” Aaron had visited James yesterday in Cook County Jail, he told me, and today James would go on trial for first-degree murder. “My mom says maybe he’ll come home this week if the judge sees he didn’t do it.”

I think back to his teacher’s comment: “He’s no good today. His mind is wandering and he doesn’t want to work.” I wonder if I’d be any good with my brother on trial for murder, or if I could concentrate on work sheets with all this going on. And then I think of his mother, and I wonder what her hopes are for Aaron in school. I think of her in light of our hopes for Chesa, and our good fortune in having him known and understood. What could she tell his teacher about Aaron that would be of use? Would the teacher or anyone else in the school care? Would they find a way to teach him?

Labeling Students

When teachers look out over their classrooms, what do they see? Half-civilized barbarians? Savages? A collection of deficits, or IQ’s, or averages? Do they see fellow creatures? We see students in our classrooms, of course, but who are they? What dreams do they bring? What experiences have they had, and where do they want to go? What interests or concerns them, how have they been hurt, what are they frightened of, what will they fight for, and what and whom do they care about?

When I began teaching, we were told that many of our students were “culturally deprived.” This became a strong, germinal idea for some teachers, and cultural deprivation was being unearthed and remediated all over the place. It didn’t take long, however, for cultural deprivation as a concept to come in for some serious and sustained questioning: Is calling someone “culturally deprived” the same as calling them not-white, not-middle class? Is Spanish a “lower” language than English? Is the implication that some cultures are superior and others inferior? Or that some children have a culture and others do not? What is culture anyway? In time the concept of cultural deprivation was discredited as patronizing and untrue, and it fell into disuse. Yet other equally unfortunate categories have replaced it.

Labeling students, in fact, has become more widespread in the intervening years — it has become epidemic in our school. It’s as if supervisors, coordinators, and administrators have nothing better to do than to mumble knowingly about “soft signs,” “attention deficit disorder,” or “low impulse control,” and all the rest of us stand around smiling, pretending to know what they’re talking about. The categories keep splintering and proliferating, getting nuttier as they go: L.D., B.D., E.H., T.A.G., E.M.H. It’s almost impossible for teachers today not to see before them “gifted and talented” students, “learning disabled” youngsters, and children “at risk.” I recently asked a scholar who had just presented a major research paper at a professional conference on “at-risk” students to give me a brief definition of “at-risk,” using only “Peter Rabbit English.” He said flatly, “Black or Hispanic, poor, and from a single-parent household.” That helps. “At risk” is simply “cultural deprivation” recycled for the 1990s.

The problem is this: in the human-centered act of teaching, all attempts to define categories lower our sights, misdirect our vision, and mislead our intentions.

Labels are limiting. They offer a single lens concentrated on a specific deficit when what we need are multiple ways of seeing a child’s ever-changing strengths. All the categories are upside down — they conceal more than they reveal. They are abstract, when what we need is immediate and concrete. The focusing questions for effective teachers must be these: Who is this person before me? What are his interests and areas of wonder? How does she express herself and what is her awareness of herself as a learner? What efforts and potential does she bring? These are the kinds of questions we need to figure out how to attend to.

In the odd, often upside-down world of schools, we typically start in the wrong place. We start with what kids can’t do and don’t know, what they don’t understand or value, what they feel incompetent or insecure about, and we then develop a curriculum to remediate each deficiency. The curriculum is built on a deficit-model; it is built on repairing weakness. And it simply doesn’t work.

Frederick Douglass tells a remarkable story of learning to read as a subversive activity. As a slave Douglass had no rights and meager opportunities. Reading among slaves was strictly forbidden for it could open worlds and create unimaginable mischief. Besides, slaves had no need of reading. They could be trained in the necessary menial and backbreaking work. Yet his master’s wife, believing him to be an intelligent youngster, undertook to teach Douglass how to read the Bible in hopes that he would come closer to God. When the master discovered the crime he exploded: “It will unfit him to be a slave!”

Education will unfit anyone to be a slave. That is because education is bold, adventurous, creative, vivid, illuminating — in other words education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens. Training is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers. Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

What we call education is usually no more than training. We are often so busy operating schools that we have lost sight of learning. We mostly participate in certification mills, institutions founded on notions of control and discipline, lifeless and joyless places where people serve time and master a few basic skills on their way to a plain piece of paper that justifies and sanctions the whole affair. Sometimes these places are merely mindless, and sometimes they are expressly malevolent.

A hundred years ago this country developed a system of schools run by the Interior Department called Indian Boarding Schools, a few of which survive to this day. The premise of these schools is that Native American children can be educated if they are stripped of everything Indian and taught to be like whites. Taken from their homes, these youngsters were punished severely for speaking their own languages, practicing their own religions, or attempting to contact their families. Everything Native had to be erased as a first step toward official learning. Some students, of course, went along, but many rebelled, refused to learn, and were labeled intractable.

The cost of education at an Indian Boarding School was great — dignity, individuality, humanity, maybe even sanity. The payoff was rather small: a menial job, a marginal place in the social order.

Students had to submit to humiliation, degradation, and mutilation simply to learn how to function at the lowest level of society. No wonder most refused: The price was high, the benefit rather meager.

It is not much different in many schools today. We claim to be giving students key skills and knowledge, and yet we deny them the one thing that is essential to their survival: something to live for. All the curriculum units in drug awareness, gang prevention, and mental health together are not worth that single, hopeful thing.

William Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is author of The Good Preschool Teacher (Teachers College Press, 1989), and co-editor of Teacher Lore (Longman, 1992). This article is an excerpt from his new book To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (Teachers College Press).