As an educator I have had a bittersweet relationship with awards and incentive programs at school. While teaching middle years I recall having to come up with a “virtue award” each month to balance out the academic awards and was directed to “make sure [I] get one to every child by the end of the year”. This always made me uneasy, many students simply put the awards in the garbage directly after each assembly and would say openly that the virtue awards were for kids who weren’t going to get the real awards, and they were right. I have seen students do their best and come short at awards time because they didn’t get exactly 80% or 90% and even seen students lose when they tied for highest in Chemistry with a mark that tied another student to be further scrutinized to the thousandths of a percent, as though the marking of anything in a school could be accurate to that point.
I have been an administrator in three buildings in my career. My first was a k-12 the second a 7-12 and currently I am the principal of a k-8 school.
As a principal of the k-12 school I saw awards ceremonies as tedious and damaging to students ego’s they created winners but many more losers and the incentive value for future performance was minimal at best. I always believed that there must be a better way to celebrate everyone’s accomplishments in a real meaningful way.
In the 7-12 school it was a high stakes race to see who would get the most money for their “efforts” in scholarships and bursaries. Students were ranked and sorted and at the graduation ceremony a handful of students would receive the lions share of accolades and awards. Students who simply tried their best or were excellent in their own way were not mentioned or celebrated, they were merely there for the show. The structure that supports this process is based on the notion that the “real world” ranks and sorts people and that universities want us to do this. I disagree with both ideas but that is for another post.
We also had a sports awards night which we canceled because of low attendance in my second year there and no one noticed, not a single student or parent inquired about how an event which had been part of the tradition of the school and community for years.
Recently we were given a window of opportunity to change the awards system in our school. Two major changes happened provincially and divisionally which made change possible.
1. We were given provincial reporting which focused on standards based assessments and had 1-4 ratings for student performance rather than % grades for students in grades 1-6.
2. Divisional policies regarding assessments changed as well in response to the new report card and a focus on standards based assessment and formative assessment practices.
3. Everyone was doing it, literally every school in our division was planning on limiting or eliminating the awards ceremony from it’s yearly celebrations.
The staff at my school took this as an opportunity to change how we recognize success at our school. We reviewed the policies at neighboring schools in our division who had abolished awards and constructed our own policies. A committee formed and decided to use the following policy:
Anonymous Elementary School Awards Policy
The Anonymous Elementary School community believes in celebrating student effort, achievement and excellence (in all aspects of school life including academics, sports, arts, leadership and citizenship) throughout the year.
In-class activities, newsletters, pictures, assemblies and special days are just some of the possible avenues of acknowledging what our students have and/or hope to accomplish. Our final celebration will be during the Grade 8 Farewell assembly, at which each class will have a display highlighting their activities.
We advertised the changes to our traditional Awards ceremony and re-branded it the “Celebration of Learning”. In the end each classroom from grades 5-8 produced live performances, videos, Songs, and demonstrations which showed the community members what they had been up to all year. I met with our Parent Advisory Council (PAC) and told them of the changes which they supported.
A few months before the ceremony I had a few conversations with parents who wanted to know what the rational behind the decision was and once explained they seemed quite happy with the decision. Most of there concerns centered around the tradition that awards bring, siblings had won and they wanted their children to have the same opportunity. They also held the belief that if the awards were not present students would not try. This notion of effort throughout the year being tied to a certificate or medal in June is not relevant in my opinion. Behavioral awards need to be in place close to the desired behavior and that is were I would like to go with rewards. I would like all of my teachers to focus on formative assessment and praise and reward accomplishments/milestones for our students when they happen.
Any time I try something new I am a little nervous, add in that I was changing a tradition in my first year and it produces anxiety. My teachers and students did a fabulous job of creating an event which left parents with a sense of pride and accomplishment for their children. Everyone was celebrated, Everyone.
After the Celebration I was expecting to meet with several parents who had concerns but no one did. I sincerely believe that our numerous notices in newsletters and teachers talking to their students avoided any confrontation or anger that may have erupted without consulting with our stakeholders.
In the end we had a two hour long celebration where all students efforts were honored and all students participated, and everyone was honored.