Labelling in the Classroom - Effects and Dangers

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Vocal Coaching By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Singing » Vocal Coaching
Last updated: 16/04/2018
Tags: motivation, pupils, singing, teacher, voice

Labelling, positively or negatively is never commendable. Teachers who categorize their pupils allow their own subjective opinion to take over, ignoring the individual character and the individual needs that lie beneath the surface of every person. There is no such thing as an intrinsically poor pupil; there is only poor teaching. Labeling blocks the minds of teachers and significantly affects their way of behaving towards their pupils.

Pupils with the label "great talent with promising prospects" will experience a way more enthusiastic and motivated way of teaching than pupils labeled as "lazy and slow". These pupils will experience their lessons to be dull and frustrating, for the teacher’s attitude is very likely to be negative and pessimistic from the start. Pupils will feel like their work is unavailing and therefore dread every lesson, leading to the teacher seeing his expectation fulfilled- a downward spiral where the pupil will eventually give up and feel like he has failed.

However, even a positive label can build up a certain pressure. "Good" pupils can feel that their teachers expect them to understand quickly and constantly improve. The fear of making a mistake or failing an exam and possibly disappoint their teacher, the fear not living up to the expectation can lead to quite a similar blockade.

Mediocrity is just as dangerous; it does not have to be the positive or negative extreme. How will pupils go through life when their teachers give them the impression that they are reasonably good at what they are doing but will never be able to achieve anything beyond "adequate"? It is equally demoralizing.

We must teach with a uniformly big amount of passion, virtuosity and excitement for every pupil and always remember: It is not about the outcome; it is about the progress every pupil is making in his own time and manner. Every pupil is different; every person is different. We all are individuals with divergent interests, backgrounds and paces- there is no wrong or right. Rather than being judgmental about the attitude pupils bring into the classroom, we should analyze the symptoms and find out where the explanations might lie. Pupils who have difficulties with sight-reading might have had very dull and uninspired teaching in the past. It is also possible that

these pupils think more with the right brain (intuitive/creative thinking) rather than the left brain (rational/logical thinking), which makes the approach to technical aspects of music seem harder at first.
A seemingly negative attitude or a lack of motivation can often be traced back to a fear of failure. It is not seldom that these are defense mechanisms caused by unpleasant experiences in the past.

If we as teachers create a nice and relaxed atmosphere, if we show interest in our pupils, get a sense of the way each of them communicates and approach them respectfully like equals, our pupils are very likely to find pleasure in their lessons. They will develop the courage to tackle all aspects of a musical education, be it theory, sight-singing, musical hearing, performing or improvising. Virtuous teaching1 means to deal with the different personalities and find various ways to approach them, making the lessons an active exchange between pupil and teacher.

One of the first and most relevant publications on the subject of labeling pupils is the book "Pygmalion in the classroom" by Robert Rosenthal and Leonore Jacobson. Here the circumstance of pupils developing according to their teacher's expectations is portrayed as the "Pygmalion Phenomenon".

An important educational experiment on that matter was the Oak School experiment. A number of pupils were categorized as "bloomers" allegedly sorted by their Results in an IQ Test. At the end of the year everyone wrote another test and it turned out that the "bloomers" had achieved much better results than their classmates. The startling fact however was that the "bloomers" had been chosen completely randomly- it had had nothing to do with the results of the first test. The labels immensely influenced the way the teachers taught and treated their pupils; ergo the pupils developed according to how their teachers believed them to develop.

What we think about pupils is what we reflect on them. We have the power to encourage and motivate. We must always be aware of this power and use it only to the pupil's advantage- otherwise damage can be done.

In the book “Pygmalion” by Bernard Shaw, Henry Higgins clearly labels Eliza Doolittle as a hopeless, rude and primitive creature from a lower class one cannot speak respectful to. The moment he approaches her with respect and treats her like an equally worthy person, the moment he shares his passion for language with her, she succeeds. Later on in the book she says: "You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (...), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated".

Having worked as a musical theatre actress in Germany I have been lucky enough to play the part of Eliza Doolittle in the musical adaption of Pygmalion, "My fair Lady". During every performance this was an absolute magical moment, the moment when Eliza feels that Henry Higgins finally believes in her, the moment when her teacher speaks to her on an equal level and allows her to accomplish what seemed impossible before.

As a singing teacher, I have experienced that some pupils acquired singing lessons to be accepted at prestigious Universities and study voice, others just loved singing and wanted to be able to sing for their family and friends. I found none of the two motives more worthy than the other, on the contrary: It was exciting and inspiring. I was happy with the progress each pupil was making. Not every pupil comes into a singing lesson and is able to hold a note at the right pitch. However, this does not make someone inherently unmusical. It all has to do with the pupil's backgrounds and their way of learning and understanding music. In the simultaneous7 approach of teaching there are various ways to make connections between the different aspects of music, allowing every pupil to learn in an appropriate pace and manner.

Not every pupil learns at the same pace. Still, rather than using labels such as "slow learners" and "fast learners" we should just accept that every pupil is different and requires an individual approach. It is our assignment to find out about the individual needs of every pupil. We as teachers need to maintain the enthusiasm and excite our pupils for a journey where we create musical understanding together.

An encouraging, motivating and enthusing atmosphere in the classroom is a privilege every pupil deserves, apart from personal backgrounds and apart from the different aspirations.
The examples given describe the effect labeling not only of pupils, but also of people in general has. Teachers actively influence and control the way how pupils learn and what they can accomplish.

We should never underestimate the power our opinions and judgments have on the whole development and education of our pupils. If we use it wisely, we can help shaping not only better pupils but also better people. 


Karoline Gable Classical Singing Teacher (North London)

About The Author

I'm a West End - credited Singer, Actor and Vocal Coach with over 10 years of teaching experience, trained at the Royal Academy of Music. I love teaching and can't wait to help you gain confidence and find your own, unique and beautiful voice.

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