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Labeling Has a Tendency to Stick

by Suzanne L. Shelton
Clinton, North Carolina

I am writing in response and support for the article entitled Black Males and America Labeling System by W.T. Purnell, Jr.

I am a high school English teacher that teaches reading remediation classes for students who have not passed their reading competency test, which is required for graduation in the state of North Carolina. Eighty percent of my students are high-risk African American males who enroll reluctantly in my reading classes as their last resort in attempting to pass the reading test. Many of my students come to my class unmotivated to think, learn and totally shut down to the possibility of achievement, while others struggle with learning disabilities. My students are from lower socioeconomic levels and there is little or no parental or guardian support for various reasons. A young man, whom I will call Sam, is a fifteen-year-old African American male who has a learning disability and has an IEP (Individualized Education Program) written for him. Sam is also taking medication to improve his behavior. He lives with his mother who works for minimum wage on a production line in a plant in a small rural community. Each day when Sam returns home from school his mother is preparing to leave for work; she works the night shift at the plant. Sam spends virtually the entire evening at home by himself with no supervision. I ask myself when Sam enters my classroom the next day how prepared is he to learn? How motivated will he be? Sam is rebellious and agnostic towards reading and school in general. He hates authority, is plagued with absenteeism, and has been suspended from school many times. There is an injustice born when as educators we begin to label or presuppose what the student like Sam can achieve in the classroom due to the student profile alone.

The African American male student usually has a low performance level because the instruction they receive in the classroom is often times not consistent with their cultural background, such as African American males tend to be louder and more active in the classroom setting. Part of this teacher-student barrier is created by not making an effort on the part of the teacher to get to know the student better. By collaborating with other teachers, resource personnel, and establishing a good home-school connection we begin to be part of the solution and ultimately the success of that particular student.

Students should never have any justification for believing that “people like me don’t get a fair chance”. As educators we need to do away with any type of labeling which will reflect a negative connotation on the African American male. Labeling has a tendency to stick and make change difficult for the student. Labels can also become the obstacles themselves for the student to overcome. Educational professionals must avoid using labels in a way that unintentionally stigmatizes students, dehumanizes them, segregates and discriminates in any form.

Educators need to know of the challenges when working with lower-level male students; they also need to avoid converting this knowledge into stereotypes. Effective instructional programs, tutoring, and family support services have high impact on achievement for students of poverty stricken communities. For a student like Sam the difference in the beginning will be the sacrifice the teacher is willing to make to step out of the box and learn an effective teaching method that will begin to unlabel Sam.

Respectfully Submitted,

Suzanne L. Shelton
Clinton, NC

Published in In Motion Magazine, April 24, 2002

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