You Get Nothing! You Lose! Good Day, Sir!

Pictured: Teacher of the Year

I had an interesting interaction with a student the other day that got me to thinking, which is always good, though it did send me down a mental rabbit hole for a little while. Which is not so good. Unless you consider that it inspired me to write a blog post. In which case it is good.

See? This kind of thing happens to me all the time…

We had a recitation contest this past week, wherein first year students would have to memorize a text in English and deliver it with some amount of oratorical skill. This year we had a section from the memoirs of Helen Keller, an old folk tale, a couple of speeches from Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” among others. Lots of kids prepare for it, and from among them, eight students are chosen to compete in the final.

So, I was talking to one of my first year students about this, and while he had tried out, he hadn’t made the cut. He said that, in response to not becoming a finalist, he had been called a loser.

Now, before we get all knicker-twisty, let’s put in a couple of caveats: this kid does tend to humorous hyperbole when he can. Moreover, I don’t know what Japanese word the other person actually used, to say nothing of the nuance of that particular word in Japanese in that context. On top of that, what I heard was a translation of that word by someone with an imperfect grasp of the subtleties of English. So let’s not get into what an awful human being this other person may or may not have been, mainly because that’s not what I want to talk about.

"As always, Bob, your feedback is invaluable."

What I suspect, given all of the above, is that the student in question – who has in the past displayed quite the competitive streak – probably knows what “loser” means, and regardless of what the speaker may have meant, I suspect that this student believes he might be one, and the thought chafes at him. I reminded him that there were only eight spots available, that not everyone could make it, and if he’d tried his best, then… Oh well. So it goes. Not everybody gets to be a winner.

That thought dovetailed nicely into the work I was doing with my advanced reading class (which he’s not in, which is a pity). We did Harrison Bergeron, a dystopic story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. about an America where everyone is forced to be equal in every way so as to eliminate competition and the hurt feelings that come about from seeing someone who is better than you. It’s a great little story that we had a lot of fun unpacking [1] and is often brought up in situations where people are rewarded for effort over performance.

It’s the little league games where the losing team is given extra at-bats to make up for a low score, or a spelling bee where everyone gets a prize of some kind, or a school where there is no such thing as a failing grade. There is incredible tension between the need to treat kids fairly and the desire to keep from breaking their spirit. We want to make sure that skill and accomplishment are rewarded, and at the same time make sure that each precious snowflake gets their due.


I thought about that as I was telling this kid that I was sure he tried hard and that was the most important thing. That he shouldn’t consider himself a loser, but just accept that there were at least eight people who were better than he was. This thought unfolded like an origami flower in my head, probably because I can’t just leave any damn thing alone.

At what point do we stop praising effort and start expressing disappointment in poor performance? How can we help students understand the difference between constructive failure and failure brought about by laziness? Should the teacher be the unforgiving rock against which a student dashes himself, or the compassionate guide that encourages her to find her way?

Or are all of those just false dichotomies, over-broad generalizations that cannot apply to every student and every situation that might come up?

I have no idea, really, other than to use the cop-out answer of “all of the above.” Some kids will flourish when they’re praised for trying hard. For them, success will just be a by-product of effort, and the real reward will be the recognition of that effort. Other kids won’t be happy until they’ve “won,” whatever that means to them. To these kids, praise for effort will be empty and cloying, and will be of no help whatsoever. Different students need different things, and it’ll take a lot more years under my belt than I have so far before I’m able to pinpoint the best strategy for any given student.

Tell me you didn't live for these when you were a kid...

I seem to be of the effort-praising school of thought, and that’s usually how I deal with my students. I don’t like to point out their failures as failures, but rather as lessons for improvement. If a kid makes a mistake in class, I thank them for the opportunity to teach something that not only they need to learn, but probably several others do as well. I prefer means to ends, and process to product, and I think I reflect that in my interactions with students. Not every student is going to benefit from this, but it’s the most authentic way I know how to be.

What I was able to get out of all this, however, was a working definition of the word “loser.” It is a person who has failed due to a conscious and obvious lack of effort. Someone who has, in effect, lost a competition to themselves. If this student had indeed done his best, and despite that did not reach the finals, then he is not a loser. He just hasn’t won yet.


[1] Well, I had a lot of fun. I can only hope the students did as well.