Praise in Private

Every month, our team debates on who should be chosen as Students of the Month—which I’m not opposed to, in theory. I totally support recognizing student achievement. In fact, I regularly send postcards home for students who have done something worthy of recognition, and I’m also a fan of sending emails to parents about positive things their children have done in school.

It’s the public aspect of recognition that bothers me. People who work with middle school students, who are supposed to be educated about the psychological and social aspects of adolescence, should know that no middle schooler wants to stand out. So it bewilders me when we take their photos so we can make Student of the Month bulletin board displays and slide shows to be shown on the morning announcements. Isn’t putting a kid’s acne-pocked brace-face on the morning announcements, laying him right out there for anyone and everyone to skewer, a punishment? True, kids seem to have mellowed out since I was in middle school; while they still have very poor impulse control, they usually just yell out inane stuff like “Hey! That girl rides my bus!” or “Hey! He goes to my school!” (We all go to the same school, dipshit.) I’ve never heard kids say what they used to say about me: “I hate her.” But I keep waiting for it.

In middle school, I was the model student, the one the other kids despised—probably because, as Mark Twain put it, I was “thrown up to them” so much. I suffered at the hands of insensitive teachers who (inexplicably) announced the best test grades out loud. Abby Byrd got another 100%–of course, it figures she would, Little Miss Perfect. And then there were our quarterly awards assemblies. For each subject in which we earned an A, we’d get a pin featuring the school mascot, the River Rat. I hated having to walk up to the podium a million times and then back to my seat while people stared and made snide comments. I wished so many times that I could melt into the floor.

I didn’t understand why my achievements were such a big deal. Getting good grades was what you were supposed to do, right? So why was I getting rewarded for doing what I was supposed to do? I scorn your trinketry! If I’m going to achieve, by God, it’s going to be because of this perverse desire for perfection buried deep within my psyche, not because of some multi-colored rat pins!

I now understand that students like me were the sole reason my teachers didn’t dash their own brains out on a chalkboard or overhead projector. Perhaps it was my paper who prompted a teacher to utter, “Oh thank Christ, at least somebody listened and followed the goddamn directions!”, possibly saving him or her from a descent into alcoholism.

Still, I don’t know that we should reward kids simply for doing what’s expected. That’s not how life works. I don’t get a pin every time I pay my mortgage. The reward culture has become so prevalent in the schools where I’ve taught that everything—including acts of basic civility and respect—seems to be linked to some kind of public recognition. Whenever I let a shopper with fewer items go in front of me at the grocery store, I expect somebody to jump out from behind a display of Little Debbies and present me with a certificate and a pencil.

I guess it seems like I’m saying we should let the slackers win, let mediocrity triumph. I’m not. All I’m asking for our high achievers is a little consideration. Trust me—middle school kids are simple creatures. They aren’t seeking the glory of being on the morning announcements or collecting the most rat pins.

They just want to make it through the day without being humiliated.


Third best.


Second best.
Also awesome.



6 thoughts on “Praise in Private

  1. But that is the thing, teachers no longer expect that their students will flourish. They simply hope that they will pass. This is not the teachers’ faults, it is the fault of our society proclaiming that no child shall be left behind. While this is an honorable notion, it discards the fact that some people will, by choice or not, automatically descend in the ranks.

    Teachers love it when children succeed, at least that is what I hope! They want all students to succeed and by rewarding those who do, they hope to encourage others to succeed as well. Perversely, some of those children they are trying to reach begin to resent the ritual and the recipient, instead of trying to figure out how to become the object of positive adoration. In their heads, they are already getting tons of attention – negative attention is still attention, right?

    This is quickly over generalizing, but this is something I think about daily, since Mel is in middle school now and living with some of these issues.

    Also, your kids sound waaaay better than the asses that Mel goes to school with. Remind me to tell you about them someday.

  2. Yes. This is what I’ve been screaming for years. I was in middle school when this whole give-kids-rewards-for-showing-up-because-their-fragile-self-esteems-need-coddling thing took full swing, and even then I was perplexed. I absolutely did not want to come up to the front of the class to receive an embarrassing standing ovation on the day my English teacher drew my name out of a hat. I did not. I’m sure I got all red in the face, which must have been difficult given how red with pimples it was in the first place. I worry about my kids now. My kindergartener comes home with awards and certificates on the daily, most of which I throw out because, DUH, where would I keep them all, but also because he hasn’t really done anything to earn them except follow directions and not wipe his boogers on his seatmate’s sweater. In short, you are so right.

  3. I agree…the need for approval is out of control in our society yet we try to teach our children to be proud of themselves. That’s a fine line and confusing. It is turning kids into pleasures and that is something I have just recently after 35 yrs learned to stop being. Great post, lil miss perfect 😉

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