12 September 2016

Winners, Losers, and Participation Trophies

A motivational speaker once stood up and told all of our entire student body that they will have to cut some people loose if they want to succeed, that they need to separate themselves from certain friends who are bringing them down. While I cannot deny the truth--or urgency--of his message, I couldn't help but wonder which lives in that crowd he was suggesting giving up on. Which kids deserved to be cut loose to fail on their own?

My answer is none. They are kids.

Now, do some kids bring each other down every time they are together? Absolutely. They need to part ways because they do not have a healthy relationship and because it's not a kid's job to carry another kid's load and push them forward. A kid's job is to grow.

An adult's job is to make that growth possible. It's our job to support young people and help them move forward when they don't know how to.

Here's the thing, though. Not all adults are willing--or equipped--to do that.

I have had very, VERY heated debates over the significance of participation trophies. I cannot stand by while adults judge children and claim participation trophies have ruined them. I cannot. Perhaps it is not open-minded of me to refuse to accept any argument on the matter, but I won't.  No, no perhaps about it. My mind is closed on this subject for two reasons.

We may not be natural athletes,
but we keep going.
For one, I was an awful swimmer who faked foot cramps at swim practice in high school and whose proudest title from swim meets was "Not Last." There is no way anyone should ever have handed me first place. However, as someone raised to believe I was "gifted" I made it through not one but TWO seasons of sucking. That's something.

I suspect my children are going to prove equally athletically talented, but by God my eight-year-old came back for another year of football and gets better all the time. My four-year-old made it through an entire football clinic in the July heat and doesn't seem to notice she's the only girl on the peewee flag football team. Paolo's team score a single point last season, but he played every game and committed to keep going and getting better, even if he couldn't always claim the Not Last title--or even most improved.

I think that deserves it's own recognition, don't you? Not first place, but wouldn't a participation trophy be fitting?

The other reason the participation trophy debate turns me ten shades of outraged red every time is the idea that any child CAN be ruined--by trophies or by anything. The idea is abhorrent to me.

[from The Art of Manliness]
Read more about brain maturity from NPR.
Human beings are constantly growing and developing through AT LEAST age 25. Therefore bad behavior for teenagers and young children MUST be treated as a symptom--not a sin. Acting out always, always, always has a motivation, and demanding compliance for its own sake does nothing for the child.

This does not mean I have never demanded compliance. Nor that I have vowed never to demand compliance again. There is a time and a place, like when it is just playing around because they're not in serious mode yet...or when you have a killer migraine and can't afford to psychoanalyze just then.

But there was a time that student compliance was how I measured myself as a teacher--how I was certain others measured me (and, well, they probably did). There was a time not so long ago that that was how I measured students.

There was a time when I believed I SHOULD judge my students.

As my son has taught me, the judging young people by their behavior only hurts: our relationships, our mental well-being--to say nothing of the young people. We dwell in bitterness and resentment when we do not get the respect or response we believe we deserve.

Well I did.

The truth was I needed more of that adult support even as an adult. Long story short, divorce exhausted every spiritual resource I had and made serving teenagers in any real way basically impossible. I couldn't see anything past my own hurt for a long, long time. I couldn't understand why I couldn't get a break and so insisted on denying anyone else a break. And the cycle continued.

[from Emily's Quotes]
I still think I deserve a trophy for those years, those years of terrible teaching and judging kids. Because dammit, I didn't stop. I often feel compelled to apologize to everyone who had me in class then--everyone. Even the kids who outright defied me and contributed to more than one breakdown. I get why they didn't give me a break at the lowest point in my life--why I wasn't winning any awards then. But the greatest accomplishment in my life may be getting me and Paolo through to the other side of all that.

I couldn't see the other side when I was 28 though, so how am I going to expect a teenager to see the other side of their hardship? And if I, a trained professional ADULT, couldn't keep from dumping my stress on CHILDREN, how can I POSSIBLY expect them to handle their stress with grace at every moment?

And why would I ever think that throwing stress back at them would do anything but break them further?

I'm sorry. I now have the emotional resources to step back and examine the source of students' disrespect, thanks mostly to my husband who stepped up and modeled patience through my stress. So why would I lash out at an obviously stressed--and emotionally developing--teenager for not following a rule or for overreacting?

When you know better, you do better.

[from QuotesOnly]
And how are kids ever going to know better if all they get from adults is judgment in their most trying times? Where are the models? The guides to help them understand what they're feeling and what they can do with those feelings? How is breaking them preparing them for The Real World? How does adding cracks to their self-image do anything but weaken them in the face of future trials? Or is that what we're trying to do? Are we trying to weed out the ones who "deserve to fail"?

Some people say there are winners and losers in this world, but I want to know how they define winning. Is it a plaque from the board of education or a certificate from NBPTS? Those I've got now. Can you be a winner if you've been put on an action plan and dressed down by an AP, a principal, AND a superintendent? Because I've got those too. Is my beautiful, giving mother-in-law a winner for having been nominated for TA of the year or a loser because the county picked someone else? Are ALL of my brilliant friends who haven't been nominated at all (yet) losers for not having gone through that process?
[from Syracuse
Cultural Workers

I'm not saying give everyone first place. I'm saying that when the kid who couldn't keep his shoes tied a whole game last year makes two tackles in the first game of the season, celebrate it.

If the team that couldn't score all season last year loses 33-8, congratulate those kids and keep them going.

If the student who couldn't make it through first period without biting the heads of three classmates and a teacher freshman year takes it upon herself as a senior to separate herself until she can cool down, acknowledge her progress.

And pat that kid on the back when he decides he can and will pass and then follows through--even if it's not an A.

I'm saying we as educators--as adults--need to recognize and encourage the simple act of not stopping. We need to build up growing people who have the strength and support to handle difficulty when they are older and done growing (at least neurologically).

Participation trophies aren't first place, but they can be just as hard to win.

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