In Student Awards Season, Thinking About the Ones We Don't Give

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My eighth graders are graduating, and I am asked to choose students who are the "best" in each subject area. There’s also an award for the "best" student over all (one boy and one girl).

Laura Klein head shot Laura Klein

When students receive their yearbooks, they flip to read the results of the ever-popular "senior superlatives" vote, which decided which of their peers would be most successful, who has the best hair, who is the best athlete, the best dancer, and more.

As I consider the categories, and try to choose just one student for each, I find myself overwhelmed by all of the awards that we don’t give.

How about an award for my student who isn’t the best or the fastest, but who always helps her peers, and is kind when they don’t understand something?

Or for the student who brightens everyone’s days with his sense of humor, and his perfect comedic timing in a tense moment?

Where do I find the award for the child who has overcome the most this year -- who has been heroic in his or her personal survival?

I want an award for the student who was brave enough to stand up to her peers when someone was being teased, and for the student who finally had enough confidence to stand up for himself.

What we value is reflected in what we recognize and reward. We give out awards for attendance and for showing up on time. We give out awards for high grades. But we don’t have a reward for effort -- for the student whose grades aren’t the best, but who never gives up, never stops trying and never lets you down in his or her perseverance to learn.

We’ve added an award for "most improved," but our award system itself is what needs improvement.

Where is the award for the kid who learns to manage the anger that has handicapped her for the last five years, or the student who rises from a second-grade reading level to a fifth-grade reading level in a single year?

We award the best dancer and the best athlete, but not those students who are remarkable in ways that are harder to summarize in a sound bite.

As it has always been, the same few kids receive the awards -- the standout three students who blow everyone away with their high grades and their amazing work ethic; the five loud, outgoing kids who make themselves noticed, and demand attention and credit for their talent, looks, athletic prowess.

I always look around the room and see all of the other kids for whom I know there are no votes.

How does it feel to be those kids? They know that they don’t fit into those categories. None is expecting to win one of these awards. But in middle school, if you don’t fit into a category, where do you fit in? What is your worth?

I always write excessively long yearbook messages to these students, wanting to make clear to them their value and their potential. It’s a little ridiculous, I realize, to try to squeeze these sentiments in beside the pink gel-pen hearts and emoticons with which their friends have decorated the pages. But it feels somehow important.

During the year, I have my students respond to journal prompts as class warm-ups. “What is something that makes you unique and special?” is one that always generates unexpected answers.

My middle school students never answer by writing about themselves. They list the people who they love and who care about them; they list the things they like about the way that they look -- but they never look within when they consider what makes them special. “I’m special because of my mom.” It’s sweet, but it’s not really the same as taking pride in who they are.

These prizes are not malicious. The voting is supposed to be fun and exciting, giving recognition where it is due. But it’s never a surprise who wins. We are just giving voice to what each already knows about himself or herself.

If you have straight A's, you know that you’re in contention to be successful, and if you always get picked first for a team, you’re already told each day that you’re the best athlete. Really, the awards that we give out serve only to make official what is already obvious.

It’s the kids who don’t know yet what is special and unique about them who we leave out, who we don’t take the time to label -- and they are the ones who really need it.