School Awards: Do They Promote Unity or Division?

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By Sarah McCraren

My nephew received a Citizenship award at his school the other day (he is the kid in the Mickey Mouse ears). His mother texted photos of his cute little smile as he posed holding his award. When I saw it was a Citizenship award, my immediate reaction was to be sure he understood the importance of citizenship. Let me clear up that citizenship, within the context of this article, has nothing to do with nationality or immigration. In this case, my nephew was recognized for making a positive contribution to his school community.

Although in my view of the world, community, kindness, compassion, understanding and appreciation are the foundational values we foster in our children, I had a feeling the award may have been handed out with a slightly different intent. My nephew struggles a bit in school. He is bright, creative, inventive, expressive and friendly. However, as a first grader, he struggles to read, resists classroom conformity and has a keen awareness of his need to be heard, understood and valued (which means he can be disruptive in class). Due to these qualities he is not a candidate for the coveted Honor Roll or Student of Month. This made me wonder if the Citizenship award is more a consolation prize, used to motivate kids like my nephew to adopt the behaviors needed to get the “real” awards.

In the moment my nephew stood up on stage holding his award, he felt important, like he mattered to his teacher, to his school, and to the other students. In this moment he felt his connection to the rest of the world and knew he has an impact.

How do we keep his awareness open to this truth? Once he is back in the classroom he will likely be encouraged to allow himself to be molded into the “model” student. Most of our societal structures (including our school systems) promote an achievement mentality with countless systems and structures put in place to produce as many “model” students as possible. Schools and teachers are evaluated based upon academic results and standardized tests. In many cases school funding and individual salaries are tied to these measurements. So what’s wrong with that? We need some way to ensure our kids are being taught, right?

The flaw I see is the system is designed to ignore that each of us have unique gifts, and are meant to share these gifts with the world. I believe this is a consequence of our attempt to industrialize everything including human development. With a limited capacity to see individual gifts, schools and society put us into groups, those who fit into the model and those who do not. Throughout our lives we are valued by how well we fit the model and then rewarded with grades, scholarships, employment, compensation, power and status.

By diverting us away from our natural gifts, we are taught to behave in ways which are unnatural and counterintuitive. We seek outside approval attempting to live up to someone else’s singular definition of good or right. Once disconnected from who we are, while also competing for outside approval, we learn to disconnect from others. We stop trusting ourselves and our own wisdom and are therefore unable to trust others. Without trust, there is fear and the need to protect ourselves from each other further fueling our separation.

Whoa… that feels pretty heavy, so what can we do?

Acknowledge and celebrate each other for our acts of connection, generosity, love, and empathy. When we see it, point it out. When we receive it, offer thanks. When we give it, feel the joy it creates.

Openly express support and gratitude to the teacher and the school for handing out citizenship/kindness awards. Let them know we are together in the effort to develop our children to treat others with compassion and understanding. Show the teachers, administrators, and leadership compassion as they are bound by the same system and doing their best. Our actions may encourage them to better their best.

Refrain from judgement of self and others when our actions and attitudes come from self-perseverance and separation. Remember, despite our natural predispositions for connectiveness, our societal structures and messaging teaches us we are discrete. We are all at different places on the spectrum. With unity and inclusiveness as the ideal, the more we offer our compassion and acceptance (regardless of where others are on the spectrum) the closer we come.

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