Labelling and Post COVID-19 return to school

Published on 10 March 2023 at 20:17

I have really stayed away from commenting on the Covid-19 lockdown and how different schools have approached their home learning. Mostly because I have been too busy sorting my own classes and getting up to speed with new technology and a new way of teaching.

However, as we start looking to September and the return of students to the school building, I have noticed a narrative that I find a little unnerving. There has been a lot of talk about trauma felt by students due to Covid-19 and how schools need to step in to support students mental health and well being (like we didn’t do this before). And that this should be the focus in September rather than returning to as much normality and routine as possible.

Now I don’t disagree with the sentiment, and there will definitely be some students who will need support whether it be due to bereavement, the sudden and rapid changes that have occurred and let’s face it, the scaremongering that has been prevalent in the media. But I do think we could be heading down a dangerous path of labelling an entire generation of students in a negative way.

In sociology, we talk a lot about labelling theory in education and the idea that the attachment of a label onto an individual or group of people can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy which can affect eventual attainment. Becker suggests that when a label is attached to a group of people, they are then treated in accordance with that label. There is then a process that occurs whereby the individuals within that group can either accept or reject that label. Those that accept it can then internalise it, creating a master status and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the case of the post-COVID-19 education landscape, I can see that the students are already being labelled as being traumatised and will struggle on their return to school. This may well be the case with some students but I don’t think it will be the case with the vast majority. However, that narrative could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and create problems that were not there before. It could also lead to more work for us teachers with a push on interventions “to catch up on lost learning”. Despite all the hard work that teachers and students have put in during the lockdown, and give some (and I want to stress SOME) students the excuse for lack of effort or low attainment.

I think we need to be very careful about how we approach the return to in school teaching and the narrative that we put forward. The mass generalisations will not help anyone, especially the students. We need to aware and vigilant for those students AND staff who struggle with the return or have had a difficult time during the lockdown and provide the support that they need, but we cannot apply this response to everyone. That would belittle the hard work of the students who engaged with remote learning and also give a “get out of jail free” card to those that did not.

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