I’ve been a teacher forever, and somewhere down the line of students marching in and out of my classroom, I proudly acquired the titles of husband, father and grandfather. I’ve loved the journey thus far and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
In the olden days, I taught “English.” Now, they call it language arts, but I’ll let you in on a trade secret: There is no real difference between the two. The name change appears progressive, but between you and me, it’s still the same curriculum with the same goals – reading comprehension, writing, spelling, grammar, etc. You know the drill.
In my youth, I was an avid proponent of bees: spelling bees, grammar bees, reading comprehension bees. It sparked interest in the soupy eyes of my students, awakening them to a challenge, something different. And it was a great way to reinforce our learning. Or so I thought.
Recently, I’ve become aware of a new dynamic, thanks to my 10-year-old grandson.
“Hey, Stevie, how’s it going?” I greeted him one afternoon.
“Okay.” His usual animation was gone, replaced by a listless reticence. Who was this stranger masquerading as my grandson?
“Stevie, is something the matter?”
“I lost the spelling bee.”
His lively brown eyes were listless pools of disappointment.
“That sounds disappointing,” I agreed. Yet I was still surprised by the intensity of his reaction. Is it that bad to lose a competition?
“I never win!” He burst out. “Eric wins geography, Jimmy wins math, and Vicky wins English. I’m just a loser.”
Alarm bells started clanging in my head. No one calls my grandson a loser; not even my grandson.
“Stevie.” I plucked a finger under his chin and tilted it up until we were looking eye to eye.
“You are not a loser. Every person is good at something. You just have to find your niche, that’s all. No one is good at everything. But everyone is good at something.”
A lightbulb turned on in Stevie’s eyes. His shoulders straightened, and I knew I had hit the mark. I just hope he finds that something soon, before he feels beaten down again.
This brings me to my question. Are we doing our students a disservice with age-old competitions, all in the name of fun?
A Veteran Teacher Who Is Not Too Old To Learn New Tricks
Dear Veteran Teacher,
Thank you for bringing this topic to our attention! It’s entirely possible that we’ve all gotten used to a system that has been in place for as long as we remember, and we forget that sometimes routines need to be tweaked or even disposed of if they are not healthy for their participants, namely our impressionable children.
Now that you brought it up, I turn to our readers with the following question: How do you compete as an adult? Do you throw yourself into a contest in which you feel you have no talent and zero chance of winning? Consider any activity: exercise, music, writing, swimming, art, running, dancing. If you feel weak in any of the aforementioned areas, would you enter a competition in that enterprise?
Would you consider applying for a job that highlights your shortcomings rather than your strengths?
Why, then, do we force this on our children in the name of constructive education? Without meaning to, are we ripping their self-esteem into shreds of dashed hopes and self-flagellation?
Rather than forcing children to compete in any given area, can we try to be creative? Why not produce collaborative games that will enhance classroom learning without destroying the fabric of their tender self-images?
It is a pivotal time of year. Each one of us stood before the King of Kings on Rosh Hashanah, the solemn Day of Judgment. We were told that G-d doesn’t ask any of us why we didn’t do as well as another person. The question that echoed in the heavenly court room resounded: Why aren’t you living up to your own awesome potential?
Wishing every one of you a happy, healthy, sweet New Year!