3 min read | Aug 2020

Greatness Isn’t Achieved With Participation Trophies

You won't find any medals for trying being handed out in this teacher's classroom.

Lonesome Dove / Millennial / Undisclosed / Student

Fair warning: This is going to be blunt but it is also going to be nothing but the truth. As a future teacher, only a year away from my own classroom, I think about what the makeup of a school looks like every day. I do not have many things set in stone yet and I weigh ideas as I continue to learn new things, but there are some things that I do know definitely. My students and I will be a family and I will love each and every one of them like they’re my own. We will have read aloud every single day, no matter the grade. My students will be responsible for themselves and their belongings because excuses don’t get you anywhere. 

And, oh yeah, in my classroom: We don’t do participation trophies.

Children Can Handle More Than We Think They Can

I think children are naturally built to exceed our expectations. They are born helpless, wrinkly little creatures and somehow they grow into whole-ass humans. That feat itself is uncanny. We bring them into a world that is designed to beat them down and then we give them false ideas of reality—like everybody deserves a trophy—which only makes reality more difficult. I cannot, in good conscience, promote the “everybody’s a winner” ideal. It’s neither healthy nor fair for developing minds, and I will be doing everything in my power to make the experience inside of my classroom as close to outside reality as possible.

If I had to pick three words to describe myself and my philosophy on teaching, they would be: responsible, humble, and hardworking. I believe I am the way that I am because I grew up with parents who were choosy with their praise, only handing it out when I went above and beyond their very high standards. And they were not afraid to let me know when I fell below those standards. 

I don’t mean to sound like I lived with stone-cold ogres, because that’s far from the truth: I always knew I was loved and that they were proud of me. I remember hearing, “You did good, but you could have done better.” Which, in hindsight, is the truth. I figured out very quickly that in order for my effort—in both academics and athletics—to be acknowledged as great, I had to go further. It had to exceed even my own expectations. It’s also why I see the potential radiating off of all the small humans that have blessed me with their presence throughout my education.

We Should Reward Only the Exceptional

So, if the average doesn’t deserve a trophy or a ribbon or a prize, what does deserve recognition? Exceeding the standard set forth. Taking what you’ve been asked to do and going above and beyond, exceeding your own expectations. There is no excuse for being average when you have the ability to be better than that; I’ve never met a student who didn’t have that ability. 

I often wonder how and why society shifted to being so soft and when competition became so taboo. Imagine this, a class full of third graders playing math Jeopardy! The final scores are calculated and Team A wins. What does Team B do? Do they accept defeat, congratulate Team A on their win, and move on? Oh no, they start crying. “Crying” isn’t really the word. Sobbing is more like it, with a mix of nasty comments, dirty looks and sulking thrown in. Unfortunately, this isn’t a story I just made up. One of my very first solo teaching lessons and I’m standing in front of 15 sobbing third graders, distraught over a game with Christmas-themed pencils as a prize. That was it. My epiphany. That was the day I saw the effects of participation trophies and swore them off forever.

Growth Stems From Acknowledged Failure

You can call me mean or tell me that I expect too much, but I’d argue that I’m playing a huge role in forming young minds who can take responsibility, recognize hard work and exceed the expectations set forth. When everybody gets a prize no matter what, they’re being told that their average or even below-average effort is great and is worthy of recognition. So, when they get somewhere, like a third-grade classroom, where there is a team that wins and a team that loses, they literally cannot handle the defeat. 

Where are you going to get in life if you sob every time someone does better than you at something? Yeah, exactly. Nowhere. Participation trophies do my students a great disservice by instilling false conceptions of entitlement and greatness. And, honestly, they are incredibly unfair to the kids who actually deserve the trophies. My job as a teacher is to foster growth and you cannot grow when you’re told that everything you do is amazing. That’s just not how life works. So, I refuse to hand out praise and awards that have not been earned by hard work and dedication.

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