The Low Kids and The High Kids

Teaching is challenging and personal and important work. Every teacher I work with is doing their best, want to do their best, and do all of this with a kind teacher heart. I love teachers, in fact I still identify as a teacher myself. When people ask what I do, I say I'm a teacher. Because even if I'm a coach or a math coordinator, at the center of my work is teaching.

I was in the classroom for 12 years. I know the difficulties of having a diverse group of learners in one class. The range of understanding on any given topic can be overwhelming to navigate. Am I challenging everyone enough? Is this too challenging? Are kids bored? Are kids checked-out? Are they learning?

These are real questions and fears we all have. And sometimes, being in this work means we develop some short-cut ways of describing the complexity of what we see in front of us. It's normal and natural as humans to look for patterns in our experience and categorize things. If we didn't our brains would be on overload all the time. We need these ways of explaining the world. But sometimes, these short-cut terms we come to use to describe our teaching world need to be examined. We need to take a step back and make sure that we aren't doing harm by labeling things and putting kids into categories they can't escape. We need to use that kind teacher heart as a lens to examine what short cuts our brains have made for us.

I'm talking about when we call students: High Kids and Low Kids.

Of course as most things I write about, this is something that I HAVE DONE! I have let my brain make these categories for me as short-cut ways of talking about the diverse needs in front of me. And I even used it in ways I thought were helpful:
"My high kids need a challenge"
"My low kids are struggling, what can I do to help them."

See! I wasn't being mean... I wanted to be helpful. Yes, some kids needed a challenge and some kids needed more support. BUT, the problem is I labeled a kid in a way that restricted them from being the unique person they are.

Think about this... if you are a students and labeled as "high," what does it mean for you when you struggle with a math concept? Should you ask for help? Should you stay quiet because you are "high" and should be getting this?!

If you are labeled as "low," should you share your ideas about a unique way you though about a problem, or should you just keep quiet because you are probably wrong anyway? Should you even try that "challenge" problem since it's not really meant for the low kids, anyway?

I've talked about this before, but I really believe that our words matter. Words have power. As teachers, we need to be careful of the words we say. I'm proposing something kind of challenging, and that is to change the words we use. Don't say "high kids" and "low kids." And while we are at it we can think about some other labels as well (IEP-kids, advanced, struggling...) It's really about avoiding labeling and putting students into a category that ranks them based on a perceived ability. It takes effort and awareness to do this. It's not easy and we will mess up. But, this is worth it.


  1. Thanks for sharing this insight Annie! I think it's such an important conversation to keep in the forefront of our minds as we think about the language we use.

    Did you happen to glance at Andrew Gael's talk at ShadowCon during this year's NCTM? He speaks eloquently to this point in his own way:

    I used to use the words "struggling" and "proficient" instead of "low" and "high" but now you have me thinking that even those aren't useful. Shouldn't all students be (productively) "struggling" in our classes?

    Thanks for the good thinking. I'm going to fold this in to nest week's GMD article.

  2. I loved your thoughts expressed so eloquently in this post. I have copied your table to share with the other maths teachers at my school. We are increasing our use of mixed ability groups and it is so important that our comments do not undermine our actions or intent. Thank you.

  3. Annie, you bring up a pervasive issue in our daily teaching lives that needs to be addressed. I especially am saddened by the talk you describe in your chart happening in front of students. They are adept at listening to this type of talk and can easily internalize it without us knowing. Again, teachers do not do this to be hurtful (that’s a whole other issue) but merely to save time when trying to get to possible solutions to these common quandaries. As an interventionist and Instructional tech teacher I am always trying to figure out the best ways to respond when teachers ask me for support using this language...any ideas?


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