Thoughts on K-12 awards ceremonies

Personally, as a kid I hated these.  As an adult, they’re just as bad. Really I hate sitting still while people drone on about meaningless things in general.  (I could be reading a novel with this time!  Or doing work…)

Anyhow, recently sat through a 2 hour ordeal for K-6.  It started with a 2nd and 3rd grade combined recorder performance.  The program claims they were playing When the Saints Go Marching.  I will take its word for it.  Fortunately the rest of the music wasn’t quite so painful, but I wouldn’t say it was good and man there sure was a lot of it.

In terms of awards, there seem to be two types of philosophies.  There’s the philosophy that some of the older and more behind-the-times folks grew up with, in which there are a small number of awards that generally actually mean something.  Like you won a spelling bee, you get a spelling award, you had perfect attendance, you get an attendance award etc.  A small number of athletic and academic awards based on demonstrated quantifiable performance.  These kinds of awards lost favor sometime in the late 80s with the self-esteem movement– the idea is that the kids who don’t get awards feel bad.

The self-esteem movement ushered in the idea that every kid gets a trophy.  Everybody gets awards so that nobody feels left out.  Ceremonies are long and annoying and meaningless.  But hey, everyone gets a trophy.  (These would account for my small collection of “most improved” softball trophies.  What a waste.)

The K-6 ceremony I sat through seemed to combine the worst of both worlds.  Each teacher got to nominate 4 kids for every subject plus a few extras, 2 nominations for “excellence” and two for “improvement”.  So, the K teacher, got to nominate something like 32 awards to be shared across her 9 students.  The same for all other teachers and their classes.  On top of that there were tons of other awards for various forms of citizenship and extramurals etc. (including a “Best Boy” and “Best Girl” just like in Harry Potter).  You can see how this might be interminable for the parents.

DC somehow only ended up with one award… “improvement in handwriting.”  I figured with hir almost unbroken record of green dots for behavior that ze would at least get “excellence in listening skills” or something.  Apparently not.  Fortunately DC is still too young to realize that ze was the only kindergartener who didn’t get at least 3 awards, and seemed proud enough to have the certificate of completion.  Whew.

Part of it is ze falling through the cracks– with the subjects ze excels at, neither the K teacher nor the 1st grade teacher nominated hir.  And unlike the other kid doing the half-day split, DC apparently did not impress the language teachers or the arts teacher or the music teacher.

But seriously, if you’re gonna do the “zillions of awards” thing in which the awards are meaningless, shouldn’t you notice when a kid has significantly fewer awards than everybody else?

If there are only a few awards, then the people not getting them are in the majority.  The awards mean something, but not getting one doesn’t mean you’ve been left out.  When there are a lot of awards, not getting any means you’re in the minority and maybe there’s something wrong with you.

But maybe it’s a good lesson to learn that unless there’s money or prestige attached, these awards ceremonies are pretty meaningless, and external validation isn’t as important as actually doing a good job.  Luckily not a lesson that has to be learned this year.

Ironically, DC got hir second lowest grade of hir career in handwriting in the last grading period.

What’s your view on end of the year awards and awards ceremonies for K-12?

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45 Responses to “Thoughts on K-12 awards ceremonies”

  1. mom2boy Says:

    Well, at old pre-school they wouldn’t even give stickers, so awards would have been blasphemous. At new school they give stickers and hand stamps but end of the year is just a (pretty painful) class skit from each classroom with the oldest, “graduating” class of 4-5 year olds going last.
    I agree with specific performance awards. Attendance, etc. But I remember them just coming home as a certificate rather unceremoniously.
    Everyone gets a trophy in sports now – which okay fine – but the handing out one by one is ridiculous.

  2. feMOMhist Says:

    I’m with you. They have these MASSIVE assemblies to honor kids for good citizenship. Where the eff is my kid’s award for reading the most books? Scoring the highest on the math tests, etc? NO ONE IS GOING TO REWARD YOU FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR after elementary school, so why are we so obsessed with doing it at a young age? Oh yes, the brainwashing of the kids to “behave” at lower grades so they will be complacent by the upper grades [OMG I sound like an unschooler] Stepping away from computer now [can you tell its been a REALLY long hard school year?]

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m reminded of a comic strip I read in gifted children quarterly like 20 or more years ago…

      There’s a picture of a school principal with a crate like box with round holes. He or she has a huge mallet and is trying to jam a square peg into one of the holes, “Can’t fit? I’ll MAKE you fit,” ze says with a crazed expression on hir face.

      It spoke to me. Still does.

  3. becca Says:

    I actually likes the ‘everybody gets an award’ thing, because I’ve seen it work pretty well. It involves people who *know* each other well, giving awards that are tailored to each person, not coming up with awards and assigning a child to each one.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So long as, you know, everybody actually does get an award. And one that makes sense.

    • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

      But what’s the point? It seems like such a manufactured idea, to have this ceremony where everyone gets an award, and then someone has to do the work of figuring out the award. Ugh. I guess it’s the self-esteem thing again. Seems like a waste of time to me.

      • Leah Says:

        I had a teacher in high school that did this, but the “ceremony” was just for the 60 kids in our honors program (two classes of 30). We all had classes together for our last three years of school, and we knew who our teachers would be each year, so it was quite meaningful. We’d bonded with this teacher over three years, even though he was technically just our senior year English teacher. He had a tailored something for every person in the class, and it was a wonderful culmination of our experience.

        I’d save something personal like that for smaller groups (summer camps, a small class, etc) and not subject a whole school to it.

      • becca Says:

        Everyone has strengths. Particularly with kids, recognizing them serves to reinforce them. It’s not about self-esteem so much as legitimate self-awareness (if done well). Though occasionally I think people just give the awards that they *want* someone to have earned (ala Obama’s Nobel… hmm, maybe that’s what they were thinking with DC’s award?).

        Leah- yeah, the place I saw this done successfully was a summer camp. There were 60 kids/session, but being with them 24/7 meant that everyone got to know everyone reasonably well.
        The campers also gave the staff awards. I still remember a couple of girls who made me a lizard award (I probably still have it somewhere). Lizards are my totem, but the kids said it was because the ability to regrow a tail was a metaphor for my ability to come back to things after at first failing at them.

  4. rented life Says:

    I never understood the attendance awards. Good job for not catching pink eye or chicken pox or the flu! Here’s your prize! In high school a friend of mine found the loop hole in the system–if you showed up for attendance in first period, but then left after (he had a lot of orthodontist appointments) you could still get perfect attendance, even if you were just there for 15 min that day.

    If the awards were unique to the person, as becca suggests, I suppose I could get on board. But when everyone gets a participation award after the main awards were given (we had an “olympics” every year at our school for example), is just lame. I enjoyed excelling at some things–music, academics–and am very competitive. Don’t dimisnish my achievements!

  5. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    If one were paranoid, one could imagine that your kid got fewer awards precisely because of being a high achiever. Lots of people subscribe to the cutting-down-the-tall-poppies philosophy, alas.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If they felt like that, they wouldn’t be skipping hir a grade to 2nd next year. I’m fairly sure ze just fell through the cracks. The first grade teacher had the same number of awards to give out but a bunch more students, and only had DC and the other advanced K kid part-time. It’s also believable that DC isn’t one of the top two kids in first grade math and reading, which means that the grade skipping is doing what we were hoping it would.

      I’m still bummed about hir not getting a good listening award! But since it didn’t bother DC, it’s all good.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Well you could always do a private award ceremony. Like “we want you to know that we really appreciate this about you.”

        My parents certainly let me know they appreciated the fact that I would go in my room and read for four hours and leave them alone to … do whatever. :-)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Nah, if in future years ze gets upset, we’ll give the “awards are meaningless unless they come with money and maybe you need to work harder if this is something you want (and we love you no matter what)” lecture. Because I’m a pretty awful person.

  6. bogart Says:

    I’m opposed to most ceremonies for most events most of the time, though resigned to their existence. I was certainly aware by about 2nd grade that these were things we (me, but mostly my parents) did out of a sense of obligation but not otherwise. We had no such silly K-6 ceremonies back in the day (the first thing I graduated from was high school, everything else was just … moving along), so that probably mostly meant piano recitals at that age, and yes, they were there and “happy” to hear me play (I might be able to remove the quotes) but I was never under the impression that it was the high point of their year, or even their week.

    I carried a paperback under my gown when I walked for my doctorate, and though it falls below “grading,” one of the things I do *not* miss about no longer being faculty, is graduation ceremonies.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      At our hooding ceremony they showed us where to put a paperback and a sandwich. Hoods from my alma mater are cleverly designed. (But not cleverly enough that I’ve gone to a single graduation ceremony as a professor. That’s one I don’t volunteer for.)

      • bogart Says:

        That is clever. Several of the places I have worked as faculty managed to make faculty attending graduation something pretty close to required. I didn’t so much mind that at the SLAC.

  7. Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

    In high school we had an annual awards ceremony that was 2-3 hours long and painful. It actually was for real awards that were competitive (perfect attendance, and then one student per grade per subject). Since high school was a breeze for me, I always came home with tons of these things, and even though they “meant something”, I still thought it was stupid. I wasn’t proud – I didn’t want to be singled out yet again for being a nerd, and dealing with the eyerolling when my name was called yet again.

    It wasn’t until I started working in industry that I learned that it’s actually OK to NOT want public recognition for stuff, that some people just like a quiet “atta girl” or maybe some cold hard cash bonus as part of your paycheck without making a Big Deal out of it.

    I *really* don’t get the preschool, K, etc “graduation” ceremonies where they put kids in caps and gowns. It makes the real thing seem not so special…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If the award is real, it should have money attached!

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        fo shizz.
        My husband’s company for which he no longer works was GREAT about this – they got tons of little “peer bonuses” in cash – someone could just nominate you for doing a good job on a project and voila the cashola showed up in your next paycheck.

        In hs, all I got were a bunch of stupid plaques and certificates that I threw away. Because who hangs that stuff up?!

  8. femmefrugality Says:

    That irony is rich. I’m not a big fan of the self-esteem movement. I feel it breeds laziness along with a bunch of other undesirable traits that are hindering our society.

  9. chacha1 Says:

    I think the whole situation is ridiculous. I honestly cannot remember any kind of “awards” event except graduation night (12th grade, that is …. there were no “graduations” from elementary or middle school when & where I grew up). The result? An award at graduation meant something. Like you say.

    If you won the spelling bee, then yeah, you got an award. If you were in the band or chorus and the band or chorus won a contest, then the *band or chorus* got an award. Likewise a sports team. There was none of this nonsensical awarding everybody on the team just for showing up. What a WASTE.

    Whoever started the whole thing should be roundly abused.

  10. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I would *almost* embrace Alfie Kohn if it meant no more awards ceremonies to sit through…

  11. Meredith Says:

    I agree! To answer your last question, “Overdone!” Way, way overdone–to the point where awards don’t even mean anything any more…

  12. BLG Says:

    I don’t know – this whole post sounds a bit like sour grapes to me. I can understand the sentiment, but saying that you hate it when everyone gets awards, and then being disappointed that you kid only got one award is pretty funny. I know you’d rather not go to the ceremony at all, and I have a lot of sympathy for that position.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It’s not a big deal since ze didn’t feel left out. BUT, the point is if they’re giving out a ton of awards and everybody gets a ton of them of them except one kid… there’s a problem. Nobody wants to be the only kid who is excluded. Seriously, all of the other kindergarteners got at least 3 awards each, and some of them got up to ~7 (the K nominations for “best boy” and “best girl” both raked in the awards), standing up over and over again. Thankfully DC didn’t notice. But a slightly older and more mature DC might have and then we’d have had to deal with a crying child all afternoon. And that’s even more fun.

      If they just send the awards home, as someone suggested earlier, it also wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s the hours of one kid’s name never being called when everybody else’s is being called over and over again for anything that’s pretty awful.

      If they’re going to do the self-esteem thing, they need to make sure that they don’t specifically exclude any one kid. Because that’s hell on the self-esteem, even if the awards are meaningless. As in, “Why did they specifically exclude me? What’s wrong with me?”

      It’s also lame that the award ze did get was essentially moving from a C+ to a B- in printing. Seriously?

      (And no, not sour grapes with me… I was more in Anandi’s situation growing up and hated awards ceremonies partly for the eye-rolling that I was getting yet another academic award. Though everybody getting some kind of award did keep people from noticing once the self-esteem movement hit.)

      • Jacq Says:

        I got all the awards and the eye rolling back in the day. I just remember that I didn’t want to go and my mom made me dress up (in a dress! – like it was church!) Might as well have just sat up there and got everything instead of having to get up and down. PITA, it was embarrassing.

      • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

        @Jacq – OMG me too. My mom made me dress up too, and my parents forced me to go to these stupid things. I feel your pain :)

  13. Perpetua Says:

    I vote no award ceremonies! But then I am grumpy about pretty much everything I’m supposed to attend for my little ones. Yes, I’m *that* parent. In High School, there was a ceremony every semester for people who made the honor roll *only* those who made it were able to go to the ceremony, so that felt like a treat, because I got out of class, but otherwise I thought it was unbelievably stupid. And don’t even get me started on those “My kid is a honor student!” or “My kid is average but I love him anyway!” or “my kid can beat up your honor’s student!” bumper stickers. Sad, sadder, saddest.

    But then again I was raised by midwesterners of the “don’t ever think anything good of yourself” stripe.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The first time DH’s (many-generation-midwestern) parents ever told him they were proud of him was at our wedding rehearsal dinner. And actually they didn’t tell him, they told my parents and he overheard. It came to DH as a surprise!

      My parents are a bit California mixed in with the midwest and immigrant, so lotsa praise from them growing up, though mainly of the, “As a part of this family you must be awesome because this family is awesome and if you’re not awesome yet it just means you need more practice” type. My mom forced me to go to high school graduation and thought I would forget that I said I’d do it if it meant no college graduation ceremony. She should have chosen the other way around– it would have been more pleasant what with the air conditioning and higher speaker quality. (I did give in and attend PhD hooding, but only because she begged and I knew it was going to be short! Did not attend the full graduation, but fewer few PhD students do.)

      Personally I prefer comparison to measurable external bars over comparison to other students. I don’t grade on a curve in my classes– either they understand the material or they don’t. I used to be more competitive, but I think experiences like Anandi’s combined with the realization that it’s better to be a small fish in a big pond (than a big fish in a small pond) in terms of growth potential (even if it isn’t necessarily as good in terms of health etc. outcomes empirically on average… but I bet the negative impact goes away once you stop making negative comparisons and reframe it as what can I learn from these people) made me prefer it the other way.

  14. Rumpus Says:

    One of my quests in life is to align feedback with desired outcomes. Like when I do something good for my job, there should be positive feedback, thus making it more likely that I will do more good stuff. Ditto regarding my boss doing good stuff for the company, etc. Your recent post on Lazear contracts addresses the same issue of feedback or incentives. Unfortunately, these systems are often poor and they need tending and careful thought. “Cruft” accrues and management goes adrift, so the feedback stops being positive and in many cases becomes negative. It’s a hard problem because we don’t necessarily know the results we actually want, have good metrics on progress towards those results, or understand how our inputs can help or hurt progress towards those results.

  15. mareserinitatis Says:

    I wish they really wouldn’t give out awards at ceremonies. Actually, the worst one I attended was my senior year of high school. There were all these awards that were teacher nominated, and I didn’t get a single one, likely because I took most of the really hard classes my junior year and started p/t at college during my senior year. I wasn’t there, so teachers didn’t think to nominate me for awards. Anyway, if they hadn’t done all this in public, I might not have known and not felt so bad about it. Likewise, I have to think that any kid would react that way: if they get an award, even if it’s just sent home in their backpack, it’s going to make them feel good. But if they see everyone else getting awards that they think they should’ve gotten or hoped to get, it’s going to completely backfire for them. Also, teachers are not always the best at assessing kids’ strength – they’re far better at assessing where kids are most compliant, and I think awards would tend to reinforce compliance rather than recognize actual talent or ability (although sometimes it might).

    But I’m just bitter. :-D

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think that’s pretty much what happened to DC. Luckily too young to realize what was going on.

      I don’t even know that it’s that ze *should* have gotten anything specific, just that if they’re publicly giving a ton of teacher-nominated stuff to everyone, it kind of sucks to leave someone out.

  16. Cloud Says:

    Oh God, I’m not ready to deal with this!

    I got a smattering of awards throughout school, mostly around academic achievement (so triggered by a certain grade cutoff, and not exclusive). I did get “Student of the Year” in 9th grade, and remember being really chuffed by that. But I was more proud of the 4th place award for the math competition I competed in (as part of a team) and the social studies competition I won (solo). I also would have been mortified if my parents had ever put one of those “My child is an honor student” bumper stickers on the car!

    So maybe I come down on the side of giving awards for competitions and not as part of the general academic/behavior rewards thing.

    Oh, and about preschool “graduations”- I used to laugh at them, too, but our day care is doing some sort of ceremony, and I find that I am really looking forward to it. We’ve been there for 5 years, and mostly with the same group of kids. I want a chance to say goodbye! I do not think, though, that there will be caps and gowns. Just the kids dressed in matching shirts the day care staff makes for them, singing a song. But we’ll see. It is all a big surprise.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My favorite award was an academic quiz bowl award (team) that came with scholarship $$. (The rest I don’t really remember, except an unexpected 1st for a musical instrument recital competition in which I’d gotten so nervous I had to start over… the judges must have been really nice, and a plethora of ironic “most improved” softball trophies. It’s all about regression to the mean with those most improved awards.)

    • Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) Says:

      It’s the caps and gowns and calling it “graduation” that bugs me, not the idea of a ceremony. I definitely think you want to commemorate the occasion somehow, but making it mini-graduation irks me. Then again, I would have skipped out on hs graduation if I hadn’t been forced to speak ;)

  17. Mari Chapa Says:

    Okay, so this may sound negative, but its not. I’m just not afraid to say what others are also thinking and too chicken sh*t. This goes for the parents with children who just did their best and struggled at school everyday…

    Is it really necessary for us (parents) to sit in the audience for two + hours while the same group of kids are repeatedly praised throughout the entire ceremony with ribbons and trophies and other kids sit there bored, embarrassed, or feeling worthless for not getting a fancy trophy or medal like the others. I can’t imagine the torture for a kid to sit there while the school throws this in their face for two hours straight. “Sit there commoner, clap your hands for the others because you are happy and just watch as we praise the students that ARE important.”

    I really wanted to grab my child and leave this circus show as soon as she crossed the stage. She worked hard all year. I’m proud of her for that.


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