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Rethinking Student Award Ceremonies

Posted by on in Social Emotional Learning
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We live in a trophy-obsessed culture, constantly seeking public recognition for what we should be doing well in the first place—whether that’s our jobs or home life. All of this is just as true in the school setting, and at the end of each year—sometimes, more often—I read or hear about students honored in lavish, over-the-top athletic and academic award ceremonies.

Here is why, for the most part, I don’t support award ceremonies:

  1. Most schools already use grades, and thereby function on an incentive-based platform. I don’t like that system, but I do my best to work with it—as well as to find some redeeming rationale for its existence. Whatever your thoughts, I urge you to consider whether the line gets crossed when schools also champion academic and athletic awards—or any other additional external motivator. As it stands, too many students care too much about the grade, and far too little about engaging in the learning process.
  2. Most people (parents, teachers, administrators, students, and even athletic coaches) know who excels at what. With each announcement, ceremony-goers sarcastically say to themselves, or those sitting nearby, “Wow, that’s another surprise!” There is merit in public recognition, but if the public already recognizes the merits of the person being recognized, what’s the point? I don’t believe that students are so insecure that they require a ceremony to affirm their accomplishments and contributions. I grant the need for rare exceptions, but only if a student has accomplished something unbelievably fantastic, original, and moving. In that vein, I think of Jack Andraka, who at 16 made significant contributions to cancer research.
  3. Too often, award ceremonies celebrate straight-A students for “going above and beyond,” “inspiring others to improve,” “constantly demonstrating expert-level mastery,” or something similarly impressive and affectionate. But what if a subject comes effortlessly to the bright-eyed student walking to the stage to receive her award, to the sound of thunderous applause from a crowded auditorium? In such a scenario, it’s important to know what one is really celebrating; hard work, perhaps, but to an equal or greater extent, also an innate intellect, granted to the recipient at the moment of her conception. To be blunt, why stop at celebrating only the child?
  4. Along those lines, I’m nearly as convinced that award ceremonies are more for parents than anybody else. Let me say that I’m not a parent, and that I couldn’t understand the pride that comes with bragging (in the best sense of the term) about one’s child. All the same, when parents arrive with an array of recording devices, more concerned with documenting the event than truly being present in it, I wonder certain things. Will this be the only time that their child wins something, so that for posterity, they must keep the camera flashing? Or do the parents simply want more photos to covet, to help them live vicariously though their child’s accomplishments?
  5. Conversely, what does the student think of her family’s making such a big deal of her awards? What if next year she doesn’t win an award? Will her parents be angry or disappointed? Will that student consider taking steps, honest or dishonest, to ensure continued success? Will this affect how she goes about learning? Will this student feel equally safe in taking risks, and learning from failure? Or will she do whatever she can to play it safe, all to win some award?
  6. What about the vast majority of students who never win anything? Do they feel reconciled to their inadequacies? How does never winning impact how they approach learning? Thirsty for an award, are they more likely to cut corners or take fewer risks? What long-term effects will this have? What about that student who, after working harder than anybody else, still can’t get it? Will he give up? What if he can’t afford a tutor? What if he works after school to help support his family, and he can’t stay late to receive extra help?

I don’t mean to argue that award ceremonies are never warranted. However, they shouldn’t be reserved for only the brightest students and most talented athletes—with a few awards sprinkled throughout for kids who, lacking such praiseworthy attributes, still try hard. What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments section.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Friday, 28 October 2016