The Limits of Labels

“When it says Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s on the label, label, label, nothing’s better, better, better, on the table, table, table.” So went the 1970’s jingle promoting Libby’s canned goods. It’s catchy. Try getting it out of your head. But what if Libby is a student in one of my classes and I want to build a strong professional relationship with her? How much weight should I give to the labels she carries? They’ll include, but not be limited to, labels about age, gender, grade, race, disabilities, physical and sometimes mental health, family relations, proficiency level in math or language arts, special accommodations, and so forth.

Navigating that label land mine raises multiple questions: How were these labels determined? Are they permanent? Which are objective? Which are subjective? Which are none of my business? Do any mandate actions on my part? Can any be ignored? And back to the original question, how relevant are they to how I build a personal relation with Libby and her family?  

Sometimes the answers and attendant actions on my part come easily – if Libby is visually impaired and I seat her near the board, she’ll know I care about her. Other times, it just gets silly. Will Libby and I really not get along if I fail to include the unique contributions and struggles of her culture when I plan lessons, as the state mandates?

I often remember the Arizona K12 Center Teacher Leader Institute last summer in Tucson. The facilitator showed the very excellent video, I am NOT Black, You are NOT White, makes the case against getting hung up on a skin deep label. Ironically, the keynote speaker later presented a dozen or more skin deep labels that we need to know about a student in order to get to know them as a person. But in order to start a relationship, would you rather have Libby’s twelve labels or twelve minutes of her time?

Ultimately, like pretty much everything, it’s a matter of balance. Complying with mandated accommodations to help Libby with a learning disability will help her learn better and be more comfortable in class, and that will help our relationship. So will discovering though our time together how our personalities complement each other and how they clash. We’ll also discover the labels that will define our view of each other, whether we consider the other honest, well-meaning, kind, hard-working, funny, sympathetic, or, their opposites. 

Regardless, aren’t those the labels that go to the bone, and aren’t they the ones that matter most in our relationships with students?



Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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