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Showing up is not enough


• Mary Laura Bragg

My beloved Mississippi State Bulldogs got their revenge last weekend on the Auburn Tigers.  After two last-second (not to mention heartbreaking) losses the past two years, they would not be denied on Saturday.  They fought for the reward of singing Hail State in the end zone as the Famous Maroon Band played the fight song.

They fought for the reward of hearing cowbells ringing so loud that people can’t even hear themselves think.  The Dogs worked their tails off, and they earned the right to celebrate.  To the victor goes the spoils – but in an uncorrupt, non-Andrew Jackson way.

So what is this topic doing on an education blog?  Bear with me.

My sister called me this weekend, asking me to put on my “teacher” hat.  As a member of the PTA at my niece’s school, my sister was asked to bring a special “surprise” snack for an upcoming awards day.  Turns out the “special” snack was so that the students who didn’t earn an academic award wouldn’t feel left out.  (Which, of course, makes the actual academic award not so special, right?)  She wants to know if I agree with her that this plan is preposterous.  Do. I. Ever.

The first idea my brain generates is, “Oh, I get it, the ‘Just for Showing Up’ Special Surprise Snack Award.”  Are you kidding me?  I don’t have to put my teacher hat on to weigh in on this one.  How in the world will students ever learn the self-motivation to push themselves if they never have to watch someone else get recognized for hard work? I’m pretty sure that Michael Phelps and Serena Williams don’t count the Special Surprise Snack Award as the defining moment in their life  — the one where they decide to be the best in the world.

This summer I was fortunate enough to spend some time in London post-Diamond Jubilee and pre-Olympics with some fellow educators.  I visited Burlington Danes Academy, in Hammersmith.  Half of the student body is low-income.   On a bulletin board, in one of the busiest halls in the school, each student was listed, by grade level.  But wait — this is earth-shattering.  They were listed in rank order — by academic performance. The bottom 25% or so were highlighted in red.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I looked at one of my colleagues and said, “do you think this would ever” and before I could finish she cut me off with, “how cool would that be?”

I got the chance to talk to a few of the “red” students. They were middle schoolers, I think, but I’m not real sure with all the A Level this and 7th Form that. But their age/grade didn’t really matter.  What did matter to these kids was that they had basically scored “Troll” on their OWL exams — and every one in the school knew it.

So I asked them how they felt about being at the bottom, and one kid said, “I hate it because people know I mucked about (wasted time) and didn’t care.  Everyone thinks I’m a knobhead (idiot).  I won’t be at the bottom of that list again.”  I’m not making this up.  See, the Parents Committee at this school didn’t believe in awards for all.  They wouldn’t send their kids there if they did.  These parents send their kids to a school, knowing that if their kid mucks about, her name will show up in red for all to see.  (And the Principal told me that she ranks teacher performance as well — it gets posted in the faculty lounge.)

But back to the problem at hand.  I asked my sister if her daughter’s school had a sports banquet.  Of course they do.  And athletes can win MVP and Best Defensive Player and all those awards that come from HARD WORK.  But those that don’t win awards don’t win them. There can only be one MVP, by virtue of the dang name of the award.  MOST Valuable Player doesn’t mean everyone.  It means the Best of All — not the Best and the Rest.  Why in the world wouldn’t we treat academics the same way?

Growing up, my brilliant sister used to study non-stop.  She worked incredibly hard at school, and she made the highest grades in her class (note: she wasn’t Valedictorian because of a B she got “for asking too many questions” according to her teacher. Our entire family still cries foul over that one.  Too bad there wasn’t instant replay in 1975.)  I, however, didn’t study non-stop or work incredibly hard, and I could usually pull a B with little effort.  Why would I work hard for an A when I could coast for a B?  Because I was a knobhead. I have a scrapbook with a few “Prinicpal’s List” honor certificates.  She has a scrapbook full of “Headmaster’s List” honor certificates.  I was voted “Wittiest” by my senior class.  She was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by hers.  After college, I worked at a men’s clothing store; during college, she worked at the White House.

Moral to this story: Working hard for something is infinitely more valuable than mucking about.  It’s not enough to just show up.  Or at least it shouldn’t be. 


About the author


Mary Laura Bragg

MaryLaura@excelined.org

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at MaryLaura@excelined.org