Competition is a critical element of our society. It exists in nature and it is a cornerstone of our economy, but there’s a lack of consensus among psychologists as to whether competitiveness is learned or if it’s instinctual and part of human nature. Some argue that competitiveness is a trait, while others believe it’s a mix of genetic and environmental factors. Either way, the reality is that competitiveness starts early and competition shows up in many ways in schools.
As an elementary school student, I remember sitting “criss cross applesauce” among my peers during the end-of-the-quarter awards ceremonies, hoping my name would be called. When I was deemed a “winner” for good behavior or academic achievement, I’d hear my nana’s cheer. “You always made me proud,” my grandmother frequently reminds me today.
Reflecting back, what made these moments powerful for my nana was that I was chosen out of dozens of my peers — that these trophies and certificates made me special. In my school, the award ceremonies began in first grade, and after I received my first one, I wanted more. Even at seven years old, it became an expectation I placed on myself.
On the rare occasion, when my name was not called or when I had only been awarded for behavior and not academics, I felt a cloud of shame form above me and guilt would rain down. “Was I not smart enough this quarter?” I wondered. “Did I do something wrong?” Worst of all was the thought that I had wasted my nana’s time since she had taken off work to be there. That was too hard to bear. Every quarter, I strived to get one of those trophies just to hear my family cheer. The trophies still sit in my nana’s living room nearly 25 years later.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines competition as “any performance situation structured in such a way that success depends on performing better than others.” Naturally, this could create challenges in a school setting, but in my experience, whether innate or as a product of a structure, competition itself isn’t always problematic. In fact, some studies confirm that competition has benefits, though they vary based on the individual and the competition.
Personally, I have always enjoyed competition. In middle school, I participated in Future City, a STEM competition for middle schoolers. The pressure and collaboration taught me the beauty of teamwork. In high school, I competed in statewide competitions with the Business Professionals of America, a student organization focused on career and leadership development, through which I learned how to receive feedback and how to lose with grace and maintain pride.
Competition can be thrilling and motivating to those who choose to engage. But it’s important to remember that competition is not a golden key to unlock student engagement. Depending on how we use it, competition can also cause harm, such as anxiety, low self-esteem or negative feelings of self-worth.
Teaching as I Was Taught
During my first year of teaching, I taught a class of 27 second graders and the majority of ideas I implemented in my classroom came from my own experiences as a student. I figured that what gave me joy in elementary school would do the same for my students. Influenced by my own experiences and the philosophy of my school, competition became a staple in our classroom culture.
When I handed back quizzes and tests, I gave students who scored an 80 percent or higher stickers and placed their tests on our “Show What You Know” bulletin board. At the end of the month, my co-teachers and I gave out student-of-the-month superlatives and character awards. Sometimes, we even created competitions on the fly. When homework was hardly being turned in, we created a “homework award,” and students were invited to an ice cream social if they turned in their homework on time for the entire week. Of course, it was full circle when I stood at the podium and awarded my own students their trophies for academic achievement and good behavior as their family members sat beaming in the audience.
Our antics produced mixed results. When a new competition was introduced, students were excited about our receiving prizes and being honored publicly. But many expressed that they felt shame when they could not meet expectations. I recall one student who could not complete his homework because his mom worked nights and his siblings were tasked with ensuring the household survived until she got off work. Another student cried when they didn’t get stickers on their test, even though they tried their best. For every student who was celebrated, there was another student who, by design, was shamed.
Looking back, these competitions weren’t used to teach students sportsmanship or resilience. They were used as gimmicks and antics to “motivate” students. I now recognize that I played a part in reinforcing a system of inequity by awarding those students who were already privileged.
Currently, I teach sixth grade English at the Roeper School, which is the oldest independent school for gifted students in the country — and competition strays from our philosophy. We describe our student body as intense, precocious and passionate. Our founders, George and Annamarie Roeper, who came to Detroit fleeing the oppressive Nazi regime, were believers in humanistic education theory. They believed that students’ motivation should come from within. So, philosophically, as a school, we veer from the use of school-wide competitions.
In our building, which serves students in grades 6-12, there are no honor societies, no student-of-the-month certificates, no citizenship awards and there is no public recognition for academic achievement. Instead, it is expected that all students are achieving academically and personally in their own right. But even in taking what we believe to be a progressive stance on the issue, doing away with school-wide competitions has not deterred students from comparing themselves to one another or putting pressure on themselves to strive for perfection.
Even in our school, when assignments are handed back in class, students still rush to ask their classmates, “What did you get?” A rush of emotions shuffles through the crowd. Sighs of disappointment, cheers of excitement, deep breaths in relief. As a middle school dean, many of my students have spoken to me about perfectionism and their inclination to compete with themselves. I’ve seen students struggle with high-stakes assessments that seek to define their personhood, their intelligence and their abilities. These kinds of experiences breed perfectionism and cause unhealthy levels of pressure, especially for our student population.
After working in schools where students publicly compete for trophies and awards, as well as in a school that openly opposes such structures, I have found that the problem exists in both. Even without the pomp and circumstance, competition remains and students must manage feelings of shame and judgment.
In a society that is rooted in instant gratification and where competition is consistently encouraged politically, economically and socially, the consequences of competition between young people feels inevitable. But we can be thoughtful about the tools we use to motivate students and how we support them in navigating their emotions.
Finding a New Path
Recognizing that my school plays a role in helping students engage in competition in healthy ways has prompted me to change my approach. To start, I’ve been considering how to create thoughtful, sensitive approaches for using competition — and to support students when the pressure becomes too much.
As I think about how and when to bring competition into practice, here are a few questions I’ve been asking myself:
- What is the purpose and intention of competition in my classroom?
- Will competition add to this learning experience for my students?
- How can I set up rules, processes, coaching and supportive systems that are centered in fairness and accessibility?
- How can I celebrate every student for their effort without making every student a winner?
- How can winners be announced without promoting shame for those who don’t win?
- What is the reflection process for students after the competition is over?
To put some of these questions to the test, I created a low-stakes experiment — something more playful.
Halloween is a big deal at my school. Everyone in the building dresses up, there’s an annual costume contest and way too many sweets floating around the building. This year, I wanted to add a little more flair. My intention was to experiment with healthy competition and determine how I could motivate students while eliminating shame.
Capitalizing on my students’ love for Halloween and how big it is at our school, I launched a spooky short story contest. After getting positive feedback from school leaders, students and our student government leaders, I created the rules, selected 10 horror influencers and writers as judges and pitched it to the entire middle school, emphasizing that it was optional.
I shared the rules early to promote transparency and created an optional writing workshop for those who wanted feedback and tips on submitting their scariest story to level the playing field. During the writing workshop, in addition to learning writing techniques, we talked about confidence, celebrated one another and exchanged tips. In the end, I received over 20 short stories and the judges selected three winners, who were announced at our annual school costume contest. All students who submitted a story were invited to a pizza party to center joy, celebrate the effort they put into their story and to discuss what they learned.
After experimenting with a few new practices, I realize my goal isn’t to get rid of competition altogether. It is to refine the ways I intrinsically motivate my students. I don’t believe the answer is making every child a winner, but no child should be made to feel shame. We need to create conditions in schools so that children do not drown in their own perfectionism because of the high-stakes structures we create for them. If competition is part of the solution, then it is my responsibility as an educator, to determine the best ways to support students through their own competitive nature, while also creating healthy competitions at school that promote collaboration, compassion and creativity.