Special is as special does

March 5, 2007

I have a sign on the bulletin board next to the front door. Actually, I have quite a few snippets of inspiration for the kidlets, but this one is germaine to the conversation at hand:

You are special. Just like everyone else.

Yes they are.

Problem is, some of my colleagues are taking this attitude to extremes. A memo that’s been going around our community (teachers are divided into grade level “communities” for administrative purposes) is meant to get us thinking about end of school awards. Basically, every single student gets a “certificate of achievement” at the end of the year, along with their report card. It’s printed in-house on that cheesy awards type paper you can buy at Staples.

Yeh, like that makes sense.

For most students, there isn’t a problem, in that we can always find something meaningful in their year to celebrate. While we don’t have “honours” anymore, we do acknowledge students who do receive a grade of 80 in any of their courses. (Of course, an 80 in my math class is in a different universe than an 80 in, say, Foods, in which attending and breathing pretty well guarantees a pass.)

We also recognize effort in citizenship, peer support, and, sometimes, just for being a genuinely nice kid.

Not one to leave any controversy unsullied by debate, I have “issues” with this whole process. Forget, for a moment, the fact that a student who’s pulling 90s in all core subject areas gets the same, cheap, laser-printed “certificate” as the kid who’s in la-la land most of the time (but who still a “nice” kid).

Here’s the rub; while we can find something of note for almost every kid we teach, there are always a few for whom we must be creative. Consider my resident drug dealer (achievement in business acumen?) or my little darling who loves dropping the fuck bomb to impress friends and enemies alike (achievement in creative language arts?). Or perhaps our resident Satan in training who has the choice of attending regularly or being sent to group home. By her parents. Yes, her attendance is much improved, but should she get a certificate for that?

The pendulum of this issue swings widely. I happen to be a big fan of Alfie Kohn on this one. My feelings are that the cheap little sheets we hand out to everyone (mustn’t leave anyone out, now) are both insulting to students who do well, enjoy doing well, and have a well defined sense of self esteem, and meaningless to those who know they don’t deserve much else than a kick in the ass.

I’m not a big fan of monthly, school-wide awards assemblies, and in the past we’ve come up with some pretty creative alternatives. For instance, we’ve had little get togethers in the cafeteria for students who legitimately deserve recognition. We invite parents and sibs to the event, and try to make it a fun little time for them.

This tends to pull out about half our kids from any given class. The rest are combined into a homework or study skills session, covered by admin or teachers with unassigned time.

I happily give up my prep to supervise and spend time with this group… When they complain about why they have to work while the rest get some off-time, I easily explain that we’re here together to help them join that other group.

Alas, we don’t do this in my current school. Here, everyone is special, and everyone must be recognized in some way. It’s funny that this article just came out in Saturday’s National Post:

Researchers say a life of constant praise may have created narcissists.

After nearly three decades of “Me Museums” and “All About Me” time for pre-schoolers, trophies for every child who simply shows up for a soccer game and childhoods punctuated by endless refrains of “You are special,” experts are beginning to rethink the emphasis on self-esteem.

Long deemed an essential ingredient of child-rearing, the ego-boosting endeavours may have gone too far, according to some researchers, who say the current generation in universities and the workplace may well be more self-absorbed than any previous.

It’s been fashionable to remind every kid how special they are for a while now. Ever since I started teaching, which has been ten years now, at least. Don’t get me wrong; I very happily give praise where praise is due. And I’m a firm proponent of the One Minute Manager (a minute of praise followed by a minute of correction).

But I also believe that kids blow through the bullshit of things like “achievement certificates” pretty easily too. Why can’t teachers?

Oh and the sign I have beside my door? Well, it’s better than this missive, offered up by the movie Fight Club:

Listen up maggots; you are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.


What are the enlightened schools doing out there? Anyone else have to deal with the trap of inclusion? Do you think I’m being over sensitive? I welcome your contributions to the discussion, and thank you for dropping by.




  1. […] with a Bad Attitude questions the wisdom of giving awards to every student, including Satan Jr. Basically, every single student gets a “certificate of […]

  2. I understand completely. My daughter previously attended a school where the awards assembly at the end of the year featured more awards for those “special” kids than the true achievers. Now, she attends a charter school and her first true run of honor roll, which also just became a bit more difficult to achieve, is over. I was glad to see it was a true honor roll-not a happy happy joy joy gathering of people who need to make everyone feel great.

    There are ways around it, ways that genuinely acknowledge true achievement. And I’m not so sure that those sad sacks don’t gain at least a little bit by watching the fruits of that achievement.


  3. Well said!

    I’d like to present you with a “Great Posts in Blogging Award” (suitable for framing). Hmmm, but then I’d have to give one to everybody…


    You’ve hurt my self esteem. May I sue?


  4. […] up-Teacher with a Bad Attitude-on trendy-self-esteem inspiring-award giving behavior. I wonder what will happen when the great […]

  5. Building (and apparently tearing down) students’ self esteem has been an issue for me in the last couple of week. I both coach and teach at the 7th grade level. The problem has come up on my volleyball team. I am aware that many 7th grade girls have fragile self esteem and make a conscious effort to be very positive. I also feel that as a coach (and a teacher) it is my job to point out when students are doing things wrong to help them to learn from their mistakes. Twice in one week I was called out by parents because I pointed out something their child was doing wrong in front of their peers at practice (one was having a cell phone out during practice, the other was the girl wasn’t swinging though her attacks). One e-mail said that it is okay to make children positive examples in front of their peers, but if I have something negative to say it should be private, always, apparently even if their teammates could learn something from their incorrect technique. These girls are 12 and 13 years old, at what point do we stop coddling them? How are they going to survive in the real world?

    Hey Ellie – Thanks for dropping by.

    Coaching sports is a bit different, I think, than the classroom situation. I do both as well (basketball, in my case). I’m known as being rather intense, cheering loudly when one of my girls bangs it, but also when someone messes up a play, or worse, just plumb refuses to listen to my coaching. In team sports, the entire team certainly does benefit from the mistakes of teammates. I have no problems with that.

    But hey, that aside, I believe that positive self esteem comes arises from genuine achievement.

    And to those parents who yap, ask them if they would like to take up coaching the team, sacrificing dozens of hours a season, and taking coaching clinics to improve themselves.

    Then tell them to shut up.


  6. Yeah, some of those stupid fluff awards were just that fluff. Some were encouraging when sincere. My kid always had both. Genuine above honor honor roll. So that was cool but when she struggled it was hard to come back up because the bar was raised so high to start. She’s a volleyballer. When you correct the same kid more than once, it can feel like your being picked on. It can make the player self conscious around that coach to the point they are not playing well. If you have real issues, then your coaching needs to be one on one for a bit. End result should be they learn from their mistakes and become a better player and person because of their coaching. Or in our case, they go on to play in college which is most students and coaches dreams for their students and eventually give back to their sports so they can in turn distribute those frolly awards.

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