I wanted to give a couple of my students a second recognition award during the school year when I was a classroom teacher. I was met with resistance. I was asked if all of the students in my classroom had received an award. The answer was no. I was (politely) told everyone needed to receive an award before anyone could win a second recognition award. I seethed. Basically, I was being told that the kids who were working the hardest shouldn’t be recognized for their diligence until everyone’s ego was stoked, whether they deserved it or not. That didn’t sit well with me back then. Years later, I still don’t understand that line of thinking.
Over the weekend, Isabelle, Marc, and I drove home from her swim banquet. Marc and I remarked about how proud we were of Isabelle for trying a new sport, being on a team for the first time, and doing her personal best each and every time she swam in a meet this summer. However, there wasn’t much coming at us from the backseat.
After some small talk, I said, “You should be so proud of yourself, Isabelle. Are you proud of yourself?”
“I didn’t win a medal or a trophy,” she replied flatly.
“What do you mean? You got a medal.”
Isabelle quickly pointed out that everyone who was new to the swim team got those medals. (She was correct.) “I didn’t win a trophy like P.J.,” she said referring to a boy her age who received two trophies.
“You’re right,” I replied. “You didn’t win any trophies.”
“Why not?” she inquired.
I explained how those trophies were for kids who finished in first, second, or third place in a swim race. I explained that even though she shaved time off every time she raced, she didn’t finish in the top three in any of her races. I explained that not everyone can win the races.
Isabelle didn’t seem to care about the things I said. She was disappointed she didn’t go home with something three-dimensional and shiny.
Here’s the thing. I AM MORE THAN OKAY that Isabelle didn’t walk away with a participation trophy. Here’s are a few reasons why:
- Isabelle saw right through the first-year recognition medal she won. She knew it wasn’t a real award. Maybe receiving a participation trophy would’ve helped in the moment, but she would’ve seen through anything unattached to a top-three finish.
- I was a terrible athlete in middle school. (Let’s be honest, I never excelled at anything besides Pilates and swimming.) I was on the “B Team” for both field hockey and softball. As a result, I never received an award because I wasn’t any good at either sport. Perhaps if I had received a phony award, I would’ve kept participating instead of finding something I could excel at. Instead, I tried other things, like drama, student government, and newspaper. Eventually, I found something I enjoyed doing AND was good at. I’m sure the coaching staff was happy when I was no longer on their teams too!
- Isabelle has a fire in her belly ever since Saturday night. She never talked about winning all season. Now, she’s determined to win a race next year, which means she’s going to practice more this summer and before next year.
Isabelle loves to swim, which is why I signed her up for swim team. Somehow, I think not receiving a participation trophy was a good thing. You see, because I knew she wasn’t going to come in a ranking position at any of the meets, I kept her focused on doing her personal best each time. She bought into that all season long. And that matters! But now that she knows there are trophies, I am confident she will work towards individual progress and contributing to the team’s overall score next swim season.
We shall find out how this shakes out next summer!