Monday, June 18, 2012

Are Awards Rewarding?

With the wind down of the school year comes a tradition that just won't quit: the award ceremony. Whether you call it an "Awards Night" or a "Celebration of Learning", your school is probably having some kind of year end ceremony in which students receive some variety of award. Now, don't get me wrong, I think that showing students that we value their individual achievements is important. It builds self-esteem, communicates genuine interest and concern for their well-being, and a desire to see them succeed. Quite simply, a little praise can show a student that they matter.

I have been pondering the relevance of student awards after a recent discussion with staff at my school about our yearly "Celebration of Learning". The length of events is always an issue at our school and so one concern that we discussed this year was having too many awards. Another concern brought up was the type of awards we were handing out - would we limit awards to academic achievement in core courses or offer awards to students with other areas of expertise? As we debated, I wondered, What do awards really communicate to students? Are awards rewarding?

As I mentioned, the volume of awards was a concern for many staff members at my school. Too many awards and people in the audience get bored. Students tire of sitting still, people clap more for the first few students than they do for students receiving awards later in the ceremony, and then, of course, you have to actually come up with an award for every student. I should add that we have only 77 students at our school this year. Clearly giving awards to every child is complicated. Teachers want awards to be individualized, to make their students feel special and honored. We also want the ceremony to be one families remember fondly, not a lengthy trial they have to suffer through. Suggestions of "Why not give awards to all the students?" were met with "Why give awards at all?" (Indeed, why not?). 

 It seems to some that if awards are given to each student that they somehow become less coveted, less special. If that is true, then the students who receive awards at our ceremony will truly feel special because they are being recognized out of all of their peers. At our school, it was decided that only 4 awards will be given to each class, with up to 2 children receiving each award. For our small school that means up to 32 children may receive an award at our "Celebration of Learning". This number does not include our dozen Grade 7 students who will be roasted and honored at the end of our celebration as a way to say good-bye as they set off on their High School careers. Nearly half of our students will receive awards at our celebration next week. Half will not.What, then, of the students who aren't receiving awards? How will they feel? Will they be jealous of their peers? Will they feel like they were not good enough to get selected? Will they feel robbed of an opportunity to shine? Will they simply feel not special? How will their parents feel when they watch other children get recognized and their own child sit as one of the crowd? Will they wish their child was being honored, too? Will they feel disappointed? With who?

Another concern addressed at our meeting was the issue of what kinds of awards to distribute. The initial list of award suggestions read, I believe:

  • Overall Academic
  • Most Improved
  • Best Effort
  • Citizenship 

One look at this list betrays our school's intentions. What are we truly celebrating? Learning? It seems to me that there is far more to learning than academic achievement and improved scores. What message does this send to students? Succeed in academics, and you will be awarded. That is what matters. 

After some debate, it was agreed that Most Improved and Best Effort could be amalgamated into one award, leaving teachers with an option to include an award for one of either Artistic Talent or Sportsmanship. I felt a jolt of excitement when this was granted - Yes! I can recognize my fabulous Art students! Well ... one of them, at least. Where does this modest award ceremony leave students who don't fit the mold? They get to sit and clap for the others. So, as I decide who will receive an award, I am also thinking about who will not. When deciding between students who both showed enormous effort this year I can't help but think, Which of these students needs to feel what it's like to be up on stage? Which one won't be hurt if his name isn't called? Will her parents wonder why she wasn't chosen? What do awards really do for students, and what are they doing to students?

 When it comes down to it, an award is just a label: dressed up and written on fancy letterhead, but a label nonetheless. Best Math Achievement, Most Improved Student, Outstanding Citizenship.  How can I slap a Sportsmanship label on a child that learned to read this year? On a child that learned to create amazing and powerful art this year? On a child that learned what it meant to truly be a big brother this year? Will he receive his award and think, My teacher thinks I am a good sport, or will he be thinking, My teacher thinks the thing I am best at is being a good sport, or worse, My teacher does not think I am a hard worker, a good citizen, or her best student. But, she thinks I am a good sport. My students deserve more than to be labelled as they celebrate the end of an amazing year of learning. They are inquisitive and inspiring. They are creative risk-takers who aren't afraid to ask questions and do things differently. They learned so much about so many things this year. How many learners do you know that can be summed up in a single line? I don't want "Best Effort" or "Overall Academic Achievement" or "Sportsmanship" to be the single story of my students. They are so much more than that. 

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