I am a big fan of the program Fresh Air on NPR, hosted by Terry Gross. Every day she presents an extended interview with a public figure in contemporary arts, news, or culture. Her genius is that she approaches each interview with genuine interest and curiosity, getting into the lives, and often the heads, of her subjects with a depth that I have never heard elsewhere. Instead of tackling the interview from a spectator’s position, asking routine and superficial questions, she finds a way inside, bringing the listener along. Gross presents her subjects in a way that honors and respects the passions, the intellect, and the work of each, while still asking challenging and thought-provoking questions that pry back their facade.

On countless occasions, I have tuned in to the program to discover that Gross is going to be interviewing someone outside of my area of interest. Perhaps it is a rap musician, or a romance novelist, or an activist pursuing what I perceive as a fringe issue. My initial reaction to these is always to turn it off, since I’m likely to be bored. I’ve learned to resist that urge, however, since without fail, Gross is able to put me in a place where I not only appreciate the depth of their work but understand their life journey in a deep way. By meeting the person where they are and walking alongside, she deftly splinters my expectations, and I spend the hour watching them blow away in the wind. Inevitably, the next time I see that person’s work, I have an appreciation of where it came from. I may still not like it much, but I can relate to it.

Last week I sat in a meeting at one of the schools in my district with several other staff members talking about students and what we need to do to make them more successful. A worthy conversation, no doubt, and I know that each one of the adults in that room was looking out not only for the school’s needs, but more importantly the best interests of each individual child. But I became very aware of a disturbing tendency. It’s one I’ve been conscious of for a long time, but have recently become increasingly concerned about. Throughout the conversation, no student was mentioned by name.

Instead, we discussed clusters of students as if each cluster was somehow uniform and homogeneous. There were the standard labels we attach to students in these kinds of meetings: the “Basic” and the “Proficient” kids, the “gifted” and the “ELL” and the “Spec Ed” kids. Then there was the term that jolted me the most: the “Cusp Kids.”

Who are the Cusp Kids? These are the students who, on the most recent benchmark test, are just a hair below the cut off score for proficiency. They are the ones who are “on the cusp” of passing the state exam. “What are we doing for the Cusp Kids?” one of us asked. And the discussion for the next few minutes focused on the collection of interventions we were going to enact to ensure that the Cusp Kids were boosted up to proficient in time for the state test next month.

Don’t misunderstand me. We did not ignore any of the other groups. Teachers and administrators in that school are very conscious of working with every child and doing everything possible to ensure they are achieving at their highest possible level. Though there was a hint of a mindset to focus our resources and attention on the group that would give us the most return (in terms of AYP) on our investment, there was never any intention, explicit or implied, that we would ever ignore a group because they were a lost cause.

My worry is that we have lost sight of the individuals. We have lost sight of the fact that each one of those Cusp Kids is a person, with unique needs, interests, desires, background, family, knowledge, skills, and passions. Yet we treat them as if they are all the same, and that the only thing we need to worry about is getting them “up to proficient” (which in itself is a concerning phrase to me, but that will have to wait for another blog post).

Labels have great power. As soon as we attach one to a person—whether that label is “rap musician” or “fringe activist” or “Cusp Kid”—we immediately assign all of the traits and tendencies associated with that label to the person, and we neglect to dig beyond that.

Labels do have their uses, however. It makes broad conversations and strategic planning more straightforward. Our district, for example, has a significant racial achievement gap, and if we were to always look at just the individuals instead of clusters of kids, we would never be able to recognize that gap or do anything to alleviate it.

So what do we do? How can become more like Terry Gross in our approach to children? How do we get inside their heads—individually—and honor them as people instead of members of an arbitrary clump? How do we create truly student-centered schools and classrooms where the child (singular) is the most important thing we think about? Some of the influences that affect this are out of our local control. State tests, funding issues, regulations; these drive much of what we do every day. But there must be things we can do even within those constructs. What has to change in our administrative structures, our curriculum, our conversations, that can move us towards the goal of knowing each individual child?

I am wrestling with these things every day, and would love to hear your thoughts. Keep the focus on real actions. As I heard in a session at Educon this weekend, stop saying, “Yeah, but,” and start thinking, “What if?” If we can start moving towards treating children like people instead of labels, it would truly be a breath of Fresh Air.