How Educators Can Steer Clear of ‘Stigmatising Language’

No teacher wants to hurt their students. But when you’re a role model, a single inattentive word or deed might end up causing immeasurable harm to your students’ mental health.

How Educators Can Steer Clear of ‘Stigmatising Language’
How Educators Can Steer Clear of ‘Stigmatising Language’

The influence of an educator on the lives of the students they touch is immeasurable. It is best explained by the Japanese proverb - Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher. Many famous personalities crediting their teachers for their success is testimony to the fact that the influence of a teacher goes much beyond the classroom. This acknowledgment is often for things beyond the subjects those teachers taught.

Let’s look a little more deeply at the role of a teacher. Can any description ever do full justice to what a teacher does? Anatole France, a French poet and best-selling novelist, rightly said, “Nine-tenths of education is encouragement.” This is the crux of a teacher’s role - to encourage. What if it doesn’t happen, or if the opposite happens? Can the teachers hurt students? Is it possible they can cause mental health issues in students? It is rather difficult for society and educators to accept this. However, this possibility exists, and it happens consciously and unconsciously.

Parents and Teachers Should Collaborate to Help a Child with a Learning Difficulty

How Teachers can Affect Students’ Mental Health

Students look up to teachers as role models and accept the latter’s authority, more than that of their parents. There is a sense of trust and belonging that the teacher will do what is right for them. But when the words and deeds of the educators challenge this belief, it can affect the mental health of the students.

No educator consciously wants to put students down. What then are the adverse scenarios that can crop up? As an educator, it poses problems if you show favouritism or antagonism in any way. If a student is weak at public speaking and you ignore this person for such assignments instead of encouraging them, you create an unconscious bias. Further, if you poke fun at this person — despite not meaning to be offensive — you may leave wounds.

Avoid unconscious stigmatising

Often, we don’t realise that we unconsciously use language that can cause deep ripples within young minds. Talking flippantly or ridiculing someone’s name, parents, background, religion, lifestyle, behaviours, etc., can cause issues. Such behaviour is unconsciously stigmatising.

Another issue is gender sensitisation. During their teenage years, many students may struggle with their gender identity and display different behaviours. Teachers should be able to identify such behaviours, ensure that they do not get bullied, and never publicly call them out.

Some examples of educators' unconscious use of stigmatising language may be words such as duffer, stupid, idiot, hopeless, etc. If a student behaves a little differently or erratically, asking them - ‘Are you dumb/crazy/nuts/mental/high on any drugs’ is stigmatising. The impact is quite deep as the other students feel that the teacher has normalised such name-calling and will see no problem following the same.

Another scenario a teacher can cause extreme mental trauma is by reading out their marks/performance/assignments publicly. It is humiliating for students as they find it tough to live it down. Our education system needs to evolve a lot to avoid such situations.

How to Spot the Signs of Distress

With such words and deeds, teachers can create labels and stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously. Let’s look at a few dos and don’ts that teachers can adopt on campuses to ensure stigmatisation doesn’t happen.

Create environment of fun and trust
Create environment of fun and trust 

Dos and Don’ts

Teachers must become enablers by creating and maintaining an environment of trust where everyone gets equal treatment.

  • Keep your personal biases (personal, political, religious, sexual, etc.) out of the campus, as these cause unconscious stigmatisation.
  • Provide constructive feedback in private. Try to have honest, open, individual discussions with students rather than being judgemental about their behaviour publicly.
  • Avoid comparisons with others, especially with the student’s siblings.
  • Avoid using words such as good-for-nothing, stupid, idiot, duffer, and I don’t care, shut up, etc. Using any swear words, racial slurs, or highlighting gender stereotypes is a big No. Example: “Ask that dark, fat boy to meet me after class.”

Creating a Supportive Environment for Students

  • When referring to people with issues, use the below cues:
  • Instead of saying someone is a drug addict, say they have a substance use problem.
  • Use ‘living with depression’, instead of saying someone is ‘depressed’.
  • If someone has dyslexia, say they have a learning disability.
  • Avoid using words such as cripple or handicap for people with physical disabilities. Use ‘differently-abled’ instead.

Doing this separates the person from the problem and avoids stigma.

  • Avoid body shaming and mocking sexual preferences. Examples - fat, pimpled, effeminate, etc.
  • Avoid favouritism, or its opposite, i.e., being too harsh with students.

Let’s see how we can change the situation to avoid stigmatisation with a different approach.

Start with positive feedback
Start with positive feedback

If a student’s performance is not good enough, start with the positives and provide feedback to improve. Observe their behaviour and identify patterns to see if they have some learning disabilities, mental health, or addiction issues. There should be a discussion to help them through available means, in conjunction with their guardians, instead of ostracising them. Always try to know the story behind the behaviour before making judgments.

Ask students questions that prompt thinking, such as ‘What happens if you make this choice?’ or ‘Do you think you could have acted differently or made a different choice?’. Drive home the importance of their choice and decision. Tell them the importance of choice in their behaviour to learn to become responsible.

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