As a teacher, I am quite familiar with the application of labels. Each summer, prior to ever meeting my new students, I study the rosters. Many of the names have associated labels next to them: ADHD, learning disability, autistic, ESOL, etc. These labels are helpful when these children are nothing more than a list of names. It is a starting point.
When I learn that hypothetical Johnny has ADHD, I use that information when I create my first seating chart. I know that he might be a good choice to run an errand to the front office or to help me hand out papers. I won’t be surprised at an off-topic outburst and I’ll have strategies at hand for how to handle one if it occurs. Before ever meeting Johnny, I can have an idea of some of his characteristics and I can plan ahead to meet his needs. However, it would be completely inappropriate for me to stop there. Johnny may have ADHD but he is not his label. As I get to know him, the label loses its importance. The diagnosis tells me nothing of Johnny’s strengths and weaknesses, his adaptive behaviors, his likes and dislikes or especially his personality.
A label should be an anchor, not a limitation.
Whenever I plan a lesson that introduces a new math concept, I start by anchoring the new material to prior knowledge. When I tell students that the new concept is like something they have seen before, it gives them a place to start. Then, as they learn the new material, they can adjust the expectations laid out by the early comparison.
Labels work that same way – they initiate expectations that should be tempered with experience.
When I tell you I am a teacher, you have a starting point for understanding me. You know that I’ve been to college. You can assume that I’m a people person. Maybe you think of a particular teacher in your past. Then, I tell you I grew up in the 1980s. Maybe that causes a revision of your earlier expectations or maybe it just allows you to flesh things out, as you make decisions about what music I may listen to or how I wear my hair. We can continue that process, with each label adding more information and more clarification. Eventually, you would know me and those labels would be inconsequential. Until you were trying to describe me to someone else, that is.
Labels can help us find understanding.
When I went through my divorce, I grasped at labels to describe my husband. I realized that he was not all of the things I thought he was. He was a stranger. So, like we all do when first getting to know someone, I turned to labels to try to develop a framework to anchor new understanding. My favorite designation for him was sociopath. It explained the callousness and extreme nature of the betrayal. It was a starting point. But not the end. As with all labels, some parts fit and others didn’t. As I worked to get to “know” him again, I revised my views, adding some terms and removing others, until the labels no longer mattered.
I use labels when I write about my story. I temper the word ‘divorce’ with ‘tsunami’ to capture the suddenness of my experience. I use the label ‘trauma’ to convey the overwhelming loss. I recently introduced the term ‘PTSD,’ not as a diagnosis, but as a framework to discuss the anxiety and flashbacks that permeated my existence. Those single words hold pages of information. It is a kind of shorthand – a broad strokes sketch of the entire story.
Labels are like Cliff Notes. We use them as shortcuts as we develop our own understanding or to help someone else develop theirs. Just like Cliff Notes, they are not the entire story, full of detail and nuance. If we stop at labels, we are limiting ourselves and others. We may be blinded by assumptions as we fill in the gaps in our knowledge automatically.
Don’t be afraid to use labels but also be careful not to apply them with superglue. They should be used to anchor understanding, not to limit understanding.