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Uniquely Knowing — and Applauding — Each Student

“Which students deserve special recognition as they finish eighth grade?”

It was December 2012, and eight Durham Academy Middle School teachers sat in a circle after school. We had been tasked with answering that question and making recommendations about how to move forward. As we started, each teacher spoke about what they did and didn’t like about the traditions in place, which included multiple superlatives and distinctions awarded at an assembly and at closing exercises. It was immediately clear that there were widely varied opinions in the room, and that the path to consensus would be long and winding. But near the end of the meeting, that path straightened out.

“This is middle school,” one of the teachers remarked. As teachers of this age group, we believe and remind our students that they are works in progress. That taking risks, failing and learning from those experiences is key to their development as students and people. That perfectionism carries with it a dark side that can keep them distanced from new experiences and learning. That they are not competing against each other academically, but working together to create a community of learners. Singling out students for specific awards, despite best intentions, did not feel age-appropriate in middle school.

All of us had either won awards ourselves, felt overlooked when others were awarded or both. We had felt both the power of recognition and the bitterness of its absence. So we turned our conversation to how to balance those competing priorities. That’s when we hit upon the idea to recognize EVERY member of the eighth-grade class in a way that would be personally meaningful to each student.

Our recommendation was that each eighth-grader receive a personal letter from a faculty member at the end of the school year. Each letter would be written by a teacher who felt connected enough to that particular student to express appreciation for their contributions, recognize them for their achievements and maybe even offer some advice as they launch into high school. We hoped that those letters would be even more meaningful than any awards we might have maintained or added, while also giving us a chance to encourage them on their journey toward the 15 qualities we want them to develop as exemplified in The DA Graduate: A Mission-Driven Life — qualities like empathy, courage, kindness, responsibility, integrity and more.

Of course, one big challenge was that there are more than twice as many eighth-graders as Middle School teachers! And the time it takes to write multiple sincere, meaningful letters at one of the busiest times in the school year meant we were asking a lot of our colleagues. To their credit, our faculty embraced that challenge and continues to work hard to do that every year.

It’s also quite a task to match up each student with a teacher who has volunteered to write to them and make sure the entire class is covered. I volunteered for that role with trepidation, but it became one of the highlights of my year. It’s heartwarming to see the list of students with multiple teachers’ names next to them, indicating the many connections that they formed during their time in the Middle School. That list reveals how many of our students form bonds with so many different teachers.

I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I find it joyful to write my letters, despite the effort it takes. I sit down and conjure each student’s face, where they sat in my classroom or played on the soccer field, my favorite interactions with them, the moments they made me smile (or cringe), and the hopes I have for them as they enter high school and adulthood. Sometimes I feel like the letters I write are more meaningful to me than they are to them! I save copies of them, and sometimes remember to re-send them to students when they’re seniors, just to remind them of how much they’ve grown. Middle school is a time many of them want to forget, but I think it’s worthwhile for them to reflect on that growth. One senior even wrote me back to say, “Believe it or not, I have pulled out that letter a few times during my time in the Upper School when I needed a boost!”

There are downsides to this enterprise, of course. Not every student can receive a letter from the teacher they would choose, so some are disappointed. Some would prefer more public recognition of their accomplishments. Some adults dismiss this as part of the “participation trophy” trope that de-emphasizes individual excellence.

But “this is middle school.” It’s messy, imperfect and frustrating. At the same time, it’s inspiring, surprising and foundational. Our goal with the eighth-grade letter tradition is to express our collective appreciation and admiration to each student in a meaningful way. As a community, we decided that the answer to the question we started with is “all of them.”