Read This: Death of an Awards Ceremony

"If you are a person who believes school is all about grades and awards, I am afraid that you will not like the decision made by our school yesterday; if you are a person who loves the idea of the “proud parent of an honour roll student” bumper sticker, you may be frustrated by our school.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of a tradition at our school – a tradition that awarded top students not for their efforts and learning but for their grades and achievements. The staff at Kent School decided to abolish the “awards” part of the year end ceremony."


I was doing a bit of reading today when I stumbled across this brilliant post written by Chris Wejr, one of my favorite digital minds who happens to be a principal in Western Canada.

It's an old article—if you can call anything written six or seven months ago old—but it resonates. You see, Chris's school decided to completely ditch assemblies that gather large numbers of students together to see a small handful of their peers recognized for being "accomplished."

Their argument—and it was a collective decision voted on by his entire faculty—was that we send really poor messages to kids when we celebrate the accomplishments of just a few of our students. Sure, it's nice for the moms and dads of the "special kids," but what kind of damage to we do to the dozens of kids who won't ever hear their names called?

This thinking has sat in the back of my own mind for a long time.

As a middle school teacher in a relatively accomplished suburb, our Honors Assemblies are always really well attended and the pressure on students to be recognized for academic honors are always high. The hitch is that the same kids are recognized time and again—and more importantly, the same kids AREN'T recognized time and again.

That's sad to me.

I really want to steal an idea that I heard about a long time ago but can't find the source for today and begin "On A Roll" ceremonies that recognize every student on my team.

Any pushback?

Are there strengths in holding ceremonies that recognize the few while leaving out the many?

If not, why are they still so common in our buildings?

6 thoughts on “Read This: Death of an Awards Ceremony

  1. michelle h.

    I guess I just wish these ceremonies looked more outside the box. I don’t begrudge those academically gifted kids their achievements and recognition at all.
    Sometimes big improvement is as much a victory as accomplishment but those awards are doled out sparsely at school.
    I don’t want to create fake achievements to recognize all kids, I just would like some more recognition for the kids who may work as hard as those gifted with superior intelligence.
    Meh, I’m always torn over things like this though. I don’t want the ‘every kid gets a trophy deal’ either.
    As the parent of a kid who wants to be recognized badly but for a lot of factors (ones she controls and ones she doesn’t) might never get recognized, I just hope I can find ways to continue to keep her academically engaged and feeling positive.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Mr. Station wrote:
    “Getting rid of academic awards ceremonies only works if you get rid of all the other ways in which kids can be recognized. Are they eliminating sports in which kids can win? science fair? school plays? music performances? Unfortunately, most schools that eliminate academic awards leave the rest in place, making it very clear that the school is one in which academic achievement is something to be ashamed of.”
    This is a really interesting point, Mr. Station—and one that I agree with.
    I think my position would be that instead of getting rid of academic awards completely, we should probably make academic awards one of the categories—instead of the only category—of award that we give in our honors assemblies.
    In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that our kids should be able to choose what they want to be recognized for. Maybe the All A student is prouder of the fact that his art project got selected for the building’s art show or the athlete is prouder of the fact that he took a risk by trying out for the school play.
    By giving kids the opportunity to choose what they want to be recognized for, we help them to begin to define who they are and who they want to be—rather than settling for the definitions that we create for them.
    The only caveat in my dream awards ceremony is that every kid would have the opportunity to be recognized for something. I want to get to the point where there aren’t 10 kids being recognized over and over again while 100 sit and wonder when they might be seen as “accomplished” by an adult in their lives.
    Any of this make sense?

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps

    At my son’s 8th-grade “step-up” ceremony, each child was talked about for a couple of minutes by a teacher. It was actually well done (the teacher who spoke about my son remembered an incident I had forgotten when she was teaching him at a different school).
    Getting rid of academic awards ceremonies only works if you get rid of all the other ways in which kids can be recognized. Are they eliminating sports in which kids can win? science fair? school plays? music performances? Unfortunately, most schools that eliminate academic awards leave the rest in place, making it very clear that the school is one in which academic achievement is something to be ashamed of.

  4. Luke

    Interesting post…I just recently compiled our Honor Roll party list as we prepare to celebrate them and their “good” grades. I am torn over many issues like this (in fact…writing a blog post right now to work through very similar thoughts).
    On one hand…I want students who work hard to be rewarded for their hard work. I think they deserve to be recognized for achieving at a mastery level. I know I like to be recognized when I have been working hard just as anybody does.
    On the other hand…what message does that send to a child who worked very hard to earn a C? This C student probably worked twice as hard as some of the awarded students and learned twice as much, but receives very little recognition if any. They watch as their peers are rewarded for A’s and B’s, while they sulk on the side going unnoticed.
    I believe that effective teachers work to instill a sense of pride in their students for learning and receiving grades (whether it’s an A or a D). Effective teachers do not need to reward students for good grades because their students already have a sense of self-gratification for learning and knowing they worked hard. Students have set an expectation for themselves and work to meet that expectation, while the teacher guides them, teaches them, and possibly works with them to exceed those expectations.
    I have to admit that I understand both sides of this argument, and above all else, I think this blogpost just sheds even more light on the issue of grading. The longer I teach, the more flaws I see in the educational system, and the less and less I want to “grade” my students.
    As long as grades are around, I don’t think I can completely justify canceling awards ceremonies just yet, but they can definitely be re-worked.

  5. Anne

    I have no thoughts grounded in anything other than emotion/remembrance of when I was in school, but I do hesitate to cancel award ceremonies entirely. Probably because they were so beneficial to me – and my self-esteem, as an extremely shy and introverted child. They were when I was recognized. My name was never called for scoring the most baskets. I never played the saxophone solo. I never won a painting competition. I never starred in the school play. I was never popular enough to win an election to a student body government organization (though I did try twice – and was humbled greatly by the defeats) or to be homecoming queen. But I was good at school. And academic award ceremonies were the one time I really got feedback that what I was valuable, and that I was a special and important person to someone other than my parents.
    Of course, this feeds into why these awards shouldn’t be continued – the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. How many students never get that recognition at all? I guess my point is that getting rid of these ceremonies won’t get rid of the stratification that kids feel in schools, the sense that they aren’t as good as another. It just gets rid of the academic pressure – the accomplishments of the gifted in other realms are recognized in other ways, implicitly and explicitly.
    But this gets to the “On a Roll” ceremonies you mentioned. And I loved this comment on the original Chris Wejr post:
    Anna Lownie wrote:
    “If we are to create school environments which develop and nurture the growth of all students then everyone’s talents must be recognized. At the end of my son’s grade 4 year his teacher invited all the parents to a “social” where she honoured the acomplishements of each student. She recognized three strengths and spoke for about 4 minutes on how each student achieved them. To see the pride in a child’s face as they glanced shyly over to their parents was incredibly moving. For those “challenging” students it was probably the first time that someone publically spoke about all the great things they did and I think it was life changing for them. People are so quick to recognize the negative and for these children they have probably had many years of this.
    I realize the way this teacher structured her awards ceremony took a huge amount of work but the words spoken will stay with these kids forever, so really, that is a small amount of time when you think of the lasting impact.”

  6. Michelle

    Have you seen the “Tiger Mother” book reviews? I haven’t read the book, but I don’t think she would be pleased. (I did see her on TV this week) I, however, have never seen the merit of awards ceremonies like this. The same few children seem to be recognized over and over again. It also rewards behavior that should just be expected. Intrinsic vs extrinsic rewards.

Comments are closed.