A Tale of Two Teachers

06/10/2015 11:28 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016
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The two most important days of school might well be the first and the last. On the first day, teachers work hard to set expectations, start routines and establish a certain tone. For many --including me, when I was teaching -- that might mean making room for humor and wit.

Exhaustion sometimes rules by the last day, but most teachers take the time to celebrate the learning that happened, tell their students how special they are and wish them well for the next year. Especially for students -- like those in eighth grade who are headed to high school -- the end of the year brings personal notes and advice, and sometimes light-hearted awards.

Last Friday, a Facebook friend (and former student) proudly shared the award certificate her daughter brought home. "Most likely to win the Pulitzer Prize," it read, "for her love of writing."

Seeing that, I was sure of four things:

  • That child sees herself as a person with possibilities.
  • She will always remember her teacher fondly.
  • She will head to high school feeling capable.
  • Every eighth-grader was probably acknowledged for something.

Everything about that certificate made me want to hug the teacher who thought of it. She or he is who we want to teach every one of our kids.

Sadly, not every eighth-grader had the same experience. Earlier that day, I'd seen a story out of Texas about two teachers who gave awards to their students too.

The awards, intended to be "light-hearted," were labeled the "8th Annual Ghetto Classroom Awards." One young man was recognized for his academic difficulties with the "huh?" award.

The world learned about it because his mother also posted it on social media. She wasn't proud like my friend. She was angry, confused and hurt for her son.

Did I mention that the students on whom the awards were bestowed were in a class for kids who receive special services for learning disabilities? Yes, the "Ghetto Classroom" was the special education classroom.

And let's not overlook another obvious problem with the name of the awards. The teachers (both of whom are white) claim not to have known that the term "ghetto" is frequently used as a degrading descriptor for African Americans. (Over 60 percent of the students at this middle school are white, and just over 10 percent of students are African American -- including the recipient of the "huh?" award). It takes a special kind of racial cluelessness not to realize that "Ghetto Awards" would be unsuitable in any setting, much less as a descriptor for children in a public school.

When I read this story, I was sure of three things:

  • That young man got the message that he's a loser.
  • He will never forget those teachers.
  • He will head to high school without a lot of confidence.

I wish I wasn't sure, too, that every one of his peers got a similar "fun" award, but I suspect the mockery was widespread. Humor can be tricky, especially when dispensed by people in power.

I learned this the hard way, in my first year of teaching. Someone mentioned that one of my students, whom I had slotted into the "athletic" category, had taken ballet lessons for years, and I gently teased her for it. At least I thought it was gentle. I also thought it was okay, until the day she approached me after class and told me that it hurt her feelings and she'd like me to stop.

I'm thankful every day that she had the courage to talk to me -- who knows how long she had prepared and agonized over having to confront a teacher like that. Over the years I think I figured out how to tamp down my sarcastic wit and learned how to have humor without being hurtful.

It's really quite simple: You can make fun of yourself in a self-deprecating way, but never mock your students. And if you can't think of a way to recognize students that elevates rather than degrades them, skip the awards ceremony.