“Mom wants answers after child with ADHD receives ‘Least Likely to Pay Attention’ award.”
That was in my news feed the other day. It’s easy to look at a story like that and think the teacher is incredibly cruel. And though it seems so obvious that this was a terrible, terrible idea, I know exactly how it happened.
I’m 99% certain that award was given out of love. To be clear, I’m not arguing that it was the right thing to do! It was obviously misguided and there should be consequences for such poor judgement.
But I know what it is to be a teacher at the end of the school year. I’ve spent 9 months pouring my heart into my classroom. As I look back at the year, those same behaviors that drove me nuts also helped me come to love every one of those little nuggets.
For the teacher in question, I’m sure trying to keep that girl’s attention was a daily (hourly!) struggle. Likely, trying to keep her on-task was their main point of connection in the day.
Now that she’s moving on to another grade, the teacher remembered the headaches with love. The teacher probably recognized that the girl wasn’t behaving poorly on purpose, but the abundant energy was part of what made her unique.
That fondness for personality quirks is probably what inspired other teachers to bestow awards like Most Fashionable and Most Boy Crazy on their students. The students who once received those awards are now grown women, but those words from well-intentioned teachers left marks.
Well-intentioned or not, those awards did damage.
Here’s the Problem
Our sense of self is impacted by what we’re told about ourselves. This is particularly true for children.
When children hear things like, “He’s always happy,” or “She’s very athletic,” they begin defining themselves in those terms. We look at happiness and athleticism as positive traits, so those labels may seem valuable.
But what if the child labeled happy grows up thinking it’s not okay to ever feel sad?
What if the athlete loves painting, but doesn’t feel able to pursue that talent?
Breaking free of a label requires a fight. If the artist wants to prove that she’s also a leader, she can fight to redefine herself as an artist with leadership skills or she may find it easier to just revert back to the expected norms.
Even positive labels affect a child’s ability to grow and change.
We were probably labeled dozens–hundreds!–of times as children. Maybe none of those labels stuck with you. Maybe you still struggle to overcome some of them.
When we label someone, even with the best of intentions, we have no control over how that label is received.
A Cautionary Tale
When I was about 12, my mom said that she thought I’d grow up to become a teacher. Then, referring to my sister, said that she could grow up to do anything.
I knew my mom loved me and I knew she loved teaching. She’s the daughter of a teacher and had been one herself. This was not intended as a slight.
But what I took from that conversation was that I wasn’t dynamic enough to take on the world. In that moment, I decided there was no way I was ever going to be a teacher.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I fully came back around to my true calling. I actually had to officially change my major. And (spoiler alert!) my sister went on to be a teacher, too!
I love this quote from Jeffrey R. Holland:
We must be so careful in speaking to a child. What we say or don’t say, how we say it and when is so very, very important in shaping a child’s view of himself or herself…Be constructive in your comments to a child—always. Never tell them, even in whimsy, that they are fat or dumb or lazy or homely. You would never do that maliciously, but they remember and may struggle for years trying to forget—and to forgive. And try not to compare your children, even if you think you are skillful at it. You may say most positively that “Susan is pretty and Sandra is bright,” but all Susan will remember is that she isn’t bright and Sandra that she isn’t pretty.
A Positive Label is Still a Label
Labels have power.
That’s what makes the end-of-the-year awards tradition so dangerous.
At best, that cute, funny certificate is another label for kids to accept or fight against.
At worst, it causes embarrassment and even genuine hurt.
You may have thoughtfully selected the Neatest Handwriting award for that one little guy in your class with amazing penmanship. Maybe you praised him all year for his handwriting. But maybe he doesn’t care about handwriting–he’s passionate about baseball.
But you chose the Best Athlete award for someone who didn’t have much to praise academically. The handwriting kid won’t know why his love for baseball goes unmentioned–even though he demonstrated that glowing penmanship by writing dozens of baseball stories this year.
What he takes from this experience is that his teacher loved the penmanship more than she loved the kid behind it. Maybe he receives the message that he shouldn’t be an athlete because his athletic skills weren’t obvious enough to be praised.
There’s no way to control how a label is received. And no matter how well-intentioned, or seemingly positive an award is, when it’s given to a child by someone else, it’s a label.
The Traditional End-Of-Year Awards
The end of the school year comes with a lot of pressure. When I started teaching, award ceremonies were part of the expected tradition in our school culture. So I fumbled around, trying to come up with something unique for each child.
The awards I selected were given out of love. My goal was to celebrate the students I’d come to adore. Like all teachers, I’d cheered my students’ successes and rallied around them when they stumbled.
I was thoughtful about the awards I chose and my heart was in the right place. But when it comes down to it, no one else should be the one to judge what should make a child feel proud, including their teacher.
Maybe Most Improved Speller’s biggest success was learning to make new friends.
Maybe Future Astronaut is most proud of trying hard at math.
Maybe Biggest Chatterbox feels she worked really hard at NOT talking!
Making it Meaningful
All of this is why we’re abandoning the traditional end-of-year awards.
Instead of finding a cute, unique award to give each child, we’re giving a meaningful award instead.
Or, rather, we’re letting our students choose a meaningful award for themselves.
Because if we want to give awards that genuinely honor our students, the students needs to be the one to determine how they’ve succeeded.
Why not let each child determine what makes him or her feel proud?
Have a discussion with your class, revisiting the ups and downs of the year. Then give students the chance to reflect and determine the awards they feel they’ve earned. It’s simple to do and we’ll walk you through it!
We created a free Looking Back resource to help you do this meaningful exercise with your class.
In the download, we include instructions for using the resource. There are materials to help you lead a class discussion and a page for each student to reflect on their progress this year.
Then, if you wish, you can allow the each student to choose an award they feel they’ve earned this year. You can even give them the option to create a completely personalized award to celebrate their accomplishment. It’s okay if more than one child selects the same award because they all have unique reasons why they deserve that award.
How much more meaningful for parents to see what their child feels genuinely proud of. How much more meaningful for students to reflect on their actual accomplishments!
We’ve included a few themes to choose from, including a clean design that’s perfect for older students.