Another ubiquitous feature of this time of year is the school award ceremony. We give class awards, team awards, grade awards, school awards-- you name it, we honor it. I came up in a strong tradition of middle school team awards and recognitions. Oh, our team did the awards ceremony proud, back in the day. My contribution to the occasion was a power point presentation with an appropriate quotation for each award and a drum roll sound effect before the slide revealing the winners. We congratulated these elite students with certificates, their names engraved on a plaque that hung permanently in our hallway, and even savings bonds solicited from local businesses and organizations.
For years I sat in that annual team teacher meeting where we listed the awards and the kids we wanted to recognize and spent hours trying to match them up. Inevitably there would be that colleague who insisted on black-balling a kid because of some unforgiven slight from January. The veteran teacher versus the almost-twelve-year-old's character and reputation is never a pretty fight. I confess, I rolled up my sleeves and joined a few of those frays, and not always on the student's behalf, I'm ashamed to say, now. My own nephew received our student of the year award, too, after I made the case that he shouldn't be ruled out because of the appearance of favoritism.
I can't say exactly what soured it for me. It could have been an unkind remark or an ugly exchange in one of those contentious meetings that made me realize how arbitrary it all was. Or, it might have been one of the countless students who worked up the courage to ask me why they hadn't been recognized, too. Or was it one of the many disparaging remarks I overheard students make over the years about what was supposed to be such a motivating event? It also might have been all the certificates that ended up in the trash later on the day of the ceremony.
Whatever it was, three years ago, I decided to approach my team with a radical proposal. Let's not give awards this year. The fact that we had lost the plaques when we sent them out for engraving the year before raised my confidence slightly. I felt like it might have been a sign. In addition, I had done my homework on the issue; I'd carefully read Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards in which he makes the cogent anti-behavioralism argument that we are harming kids by the overuse of extrinsic motivation.
Indeed, Kohn addresses awards ceremonies specifically: "in the typical ceremony for "recognizing excellence," the people in charge have unilaterally selected, at their own discretion and based on their own criteria, some people to recognize over, and in front of, others. It is their power to do so that is ultimately being recognized." (page 111)
Ouch, I thought, and so-armed, I brought this idea to my team, and guess what? As much as I'd like to believe in my leadership and vision, realistically, I'm pretty sure that, at the end of a long year, they had neither the energy nor the desire to argue about it. Either way, our awards presentation is no more than a revenant that occasionally haunts me at this time of year.