Trevion Henderson is a second year doctoral student in the School of Education at the University of Michigan. He currently serves as a board member for the Student Rights Project. Trevion can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am a doctoral student at the University of Michigan with goals of one day entering the professoriate.
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson (pseudonym), could not have known that in 1998 because I did not know that when I was just 7 years old. Still, Mrs. Wilson developed an affectionate nickname for me that lasted the year.
The nickname had little to do with some demonstration of exceptional academic prowess in Mrs. Wilson’s classroom. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I often found myself bored and dispirited by what was happening in the classroom. To cure my boredom, I would often take command of Mrs. Wilson’s classroom activities, leading the class in multiplication exercises, mini spelling bees, or whatever Mrs. Wilson had planned for the day.
“He thinks he’s a professor,” Mrs. Wilson once told my mother, “so I’ve started to call him that. He’s our professor.”
This story meant little to me until I began my work with the Student Rights Project (SRP). During my first case in the Fall of 2016, I found myself scouring the disciplinary records of a young person, James (pseudonym) facing expulsion. We found that James had been removed from the classroom before for “insubordination” and “ classroom disruption.”
As I read through James’ disciplinary record, I could not help but wonder: What would have become of me if Mrs. Wilson had not resisted the call to remove me from her classroom in 1998? What if Mrs. Wilson had labeled me “disruptive” or “insubordinate” after repeatedly trying, and failing, to correct what could easily have been called “misbehavior.” What if my schoolteachers and principals had not come together in a community effort to center my learning, rather than my behavior? Would I have found myself in James’ predicament at some point over the course of my academic career? Would I be where I am today?
To be clear, I am not here to fault James’ teachers for their decisions to remove James from the classroom, nor am I here to suggest that classroom removals are never appropriate. I am well aware of the myriad challenges facing our teachers each day in the classroom, challenges that they must balance to support student safety and learning. I would also add that James’ teacher was pivotal in SRP’s advocacy work to have James reinstated in school.
Still, I am not naïve enough to believe that my story differs from James’ story simply because I had nicer teachers. I was labeled a “good student.” My teachers often touted my academic performance and test scores when I was a child. And the label of “good student” came with several privileges, including the idea that I was worth nurturing, teaching, and protecting in school. I was a “good kid”, and “good kids” are allowed to make trouble.
Conversely, when students, like James, are labeled “bad boys” who are “at risk” for misbehavior or poor academic performance, they are not often afforded the same protections in our schools. These negative labels, which are disproportionately applied to Black and Latinx students, can have lasting, damaging effects on students. Notably, research suggests that the practice of labeling students as “bad” or “at risk” for misbehavior has “harmful effects on student self-image, academic performance, and disciplinary outcomes.” Perhaps most disconcerting are findings that, rather than addressing misbehavior, labeling practices may reinforce the very misbehaviors that teachers and administrators are attempting to correct.
In our work at the Student Rights Project, we work to rethink our roles as educators, social workers, and legal practitioners in framing discussions around schooling and school discipline. We share the goal of ensuring that our young people are afforded equal opportunities to learn and grow in schools that support them. As such, we invite you to think with us about how we talk about our students and the implications of our words have on our students now and in the future. One way to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline is to close gaps in support for our students in schools.