“I’m pretty much guaranteed to never be Student of the Month,” my oldest son tells me. He is in the third grade. This is a harsh thing for an 8 year-old to believe. I would love to tell him that even though in the three previous years at his school he has never received this “honor”, there is always hope. Unfortunately, I made a promise not to blatantly lie to my children.
I hate saying this, but he’s probably right. He has trouble sitting still. He asks a lot of questions. He can’t just do what he is told, he needs to understand why he is doing a task before he can proceed. He often lacks impulse control. He probably speaks out of turn a lot. He is strong-willed, curious and not always socially appropriate. I see room for improvement, for sure, but I also see a mostly normal 8 year-old boy who last time I checked was supposed to be learning and growing and not perfect.
Student of the Month is an antiquated ritual where the cooperative, quiet, ideal of a child is rewarded for being convenient to teachers. These children are generally introverted and shy, and sometimes they are kids who have learned how to play the game. Listen, I am not telling you that these kids don’t deserve recognition or praise, these are nice kids. But they are not the ONLY good kids at the school. I’ll be honest, I think it’s a cop out for the teachers to just go for the low hanging fruit. It’s easy to reward these kids. But here’s what my son has figured out: because he isn’t perfect out of the gate, he will never be good enough for his teachers. Last year, in second grade, he came home every month and said, “My teacher said I was really close this month. But someone else was better.” By the end of the year, he told me, that he gave up. This is the message my son has walked away with by age 8. He isn’t ever going to measure up.
I can tell him until I’m blue in the face that he is enough, show him the myriad of ways that he measures up, but there is something deeper. He craves the acknowledgment that his teachers see him. He wants to know that they recognize how hard he tries. He tells me that his teacher hates him, she only sees what he does wrong and not the good stuff. I worry that he is correct. My heart breaks. I want to send his teacher a list of the wonderful things that this child does on a daily basis- helping others, showing kindness, improvement and growth- but I don’t know that this is the right way to approach it. From what I’ve seen at our school, I don’t really know that they want to be different. So I work from the inside. I try and show him that what others think of you is less important than what you think of yourself. I try to believe this myself, because sadly, he also gets this from me. I am tempted to keep them out of school during the awards assembly, because each month, I see it wears my older son’s self-confidence down a little bit more. Then I think that maybe it’s okay for my kids to have this experience, to learn how to navigate feelings of disappointment.
Before I am criticized for being bitter, I will disclose that I have two children. My younger one will probably receive “Student of the Month” most years at the school. He is a different kid. He is generally cooperative, small for his age and has a lot of charm. He is a helper and knows how to be quiet (most of the time). He is smart, funny and the kind of person who easily fits in. It comes naturally to him, he doesn’t need to work on it at all and I would rather he didn’t receive an award for it. Recognize the child who has a really hard time sitting still or doing math or learning patience. This is where teachers have an opportunity to change a child’s life. And I know it sounds dramatic, but when you are small and your main job is to go to school and learn, to be recognized for something that you have worked so hard on, something that does not come naturally to you, will change everything. That child will learn that they can shine, that they can change and learn and grow. I can say with 100% confidence that if my older son was given that recognition, it would make a huge impact on his education and his self-esteem.
Now there will be educators that stand up and tell stories about giving it to a child who showed dramatic improvement and I applaud this. But let’s be honest, we all know that each year there will be 9-10 students in a class of 25 who are given this award and I bet if we took a look at the winners, we would find that they majority received it before and are the kids that are the quietest and most cooperative. What does this really teach our kids?