Awards Ceremonies – Yay or Nay?

Last week I attended the awards ceremony at my son’s school. Although I was pretty sure he wouldn’t get an award since I hadn’t received an email to that effect – the school notifies parents if their child is to receive an award without telling them what the award is – I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed in my son. He is a wonderful, creative, amazing kid who never ceases to surprise me with his wit and insightful observations and comments. He also had an excellent year with a teacher whom he loved and who in turn taught him to love math, which had previously been a dreaded subject for him.

No, I was disappointed in myself. After all, I don’t believe in awards ceremonies. They are happy occasions for those getting an award and a sad time for the child who doesn’t get anything. And, of course, the vast majority receives nothing. And, it’s often the same kids getting an award. Award ceremonies reinforce a system where some are acknowledged and others are ignored, or at least not recognized. Of course, proponents of awards ceremonies would tell you otherwise. They would say that children need to be publicly recognized for their efforts and achievements. That’s life, they would say, why shield children from the harsh reality that there are winners and losers? Better get used to it early on and then they’ll be motivated to work hard for those awards. Bingo! There’s the rub: “they’ll be motivated to work hard for those awards”. Isn’t learning more than that? Isn’t real learning often, if not always, impalpable, long-lasting and even life changing? Isn’t learning that’s not tied to subject areas and tests scores more important than awards that are given for nuggets of knowledge? Who is to say that a child who didn’t get an award didn’t learn as much or more than the one that did? Who determines this? Why?

The questions are endless in my mind.

Yet, despite what I know and believe about awards (thanks go to Alfie Kohn), why was I so disappointed in myself?

I was disappointed in myself for feeling disappointed that my son (and other children) had not been recognized for anything, and this on the last day of school. Of course, last year when he received an award none of these doubts and disappointments surfaced. I was happy that he had received an award. I justified my feelings, then and now, by telling myself that he needed the recognition because he had just left a school where he’d had a bad experience, and even after he left, everything was touch and go for a while. So, this public recognition was my way of relaxing into my doubts: maybe this time, I told myself, it was OK.

This year was different…again. (Isn’t every year different?) Not only did my son not get an award but the week before school ended, he surmised, “I don’t think I’m going to get an award. I haven’t improved in anything.” As an educator, I know that improvement is not always palpable. And, of course, he has improved but maybe not in the things that may count for an award. Of course, I have no idea the criteria for these awards other than they’re all called “improvement awards”. How is improvement measured or determined, anyway?  

So, why do schools insist on these award ceremonies that elevate some and ignore others? Why can’t we end the year with a celebration of the learning of all the children and teachers, perhaps with some refreshments and a chance to hear an inspiring talk by a student or two? It seems that this might be a fitting end to the year.

We all want recognition for the work we do, day in and day out, not in the form of an award but by reflecting with peers what we’ve learned. Reflection is the road to learning. Awards are not. Instead, they are the stopping point.

What do you think? Am I just being a complainer and a sore loser? Or, do you agree that awards ceremonies are detrimental to creating an atmosphere of trust and learning in schools? Please leave a comment below.

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