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Responses to a teacher frustrated by the labeling of her students

By Elaine Clanton Harpine

In our last column, we presented a letter from a third grade teacher who was concerned about a student in her class who had been labeled “mildly mentally retarded.” The teacher signed her letter “frustrated” and said, “How can we prevent this from happening to another child?” Her letter sparked three responses from other frustrated teachers.

Response 1

Dear Frustrated,

I know exactly how you feel. I teach 5th grade, and by the time the students get to me, there’s no hope. Their lives have already been decided for them. All my school cares about is mandated testing. If the students have no hope of passing the test, then the school doesn’t even try to help. Our school psychologist identifies and labels students by whatever will bring in the most federal and state funding. We label many students as mentally retarded simply because it means they do not have to be tested.

I See No Hope

Response 2

Dear Frustrated,

Our school also labels children mentally retarded when they can’t read. Our special education teacher doesn’t even try to work with them. He simply has the children run errands, clean chalkboards, and play games on the computer. Yes, they can’t read, but they can learn to play games on the computer. Something has to be done, but I don’t know what to do.

Ready to Give up

Response 3

Dear Frustrated,

I know exactly how you feel. I am so tired of seeing children labeled. If a student doesn’t learn, we the teachers are blamed. No matter how hard I try, some students simply do not learn. I don’t know why. I want help, but there never seems to be anyone who offers any real help. The administration has so many rules to follow and forms to fill out that it doesn’t leave us any time to teach. The parents, for the most part or at least in my school, do not want to be bothered. They do not respond to calls, and they do not attend conferences. The students started falling behind in school before they even started 1st grade, and they’re just marking time and falling further and further behind each year. If there is an answer, I would certainly like to know what it is. I know it is not what we are doing right now. Our schools are a mess.

Please Help


Our usual method in this column is to have a guest psychologist write responses, but I thought that these letters of frustration from within the classroom spoke more to the nature of what is facing school-based mental health than possible words of guidance or reassurance. Children are failing, being retained, not learning to read, not passing mandated tests, and eventually dropping out of school. Teachers are frustrated, some even seeking other areas of employment because they see no hope for change in the future. Schools are being labeled as “failing schools.” What can psychology offer to the problems plaguing our schools? How can psychologists help children learn?

I hope you’ll join this dialogue. Please send comments, questions and group prevention concerns to Elaine Clanton Harpine.