Education proclaims noble aspirations that independent schools tend to characterize in values language: equity, community, inclusion, and justice, and I believe that most educators are very sincerely committed to these values. Alas, however, we have inherited a system in which rankings, ratings, scores, honors, and awards are endemic and where their presence in a school’s practice is often a signal that the school values “rigor.” Some believe that these recognitions are motivating to students.
And we record these plaudits and include them on things like applications and transcripts, creating distinctions when, say, two students from one school are applying to the same college or next school. One has the little award notation, and one does not. Even if the reader has no idea what the award actually represents, it will likely shine like a little gold star on the record and have its influence.
Each of the brick-and-mortar schools where I worked distributed awards on one fine day just before graduation. Some of these awards were obvious in their intent and purpose, but many—the Class of 1897 Character Award or the Algernon Percival IV Award or the Ivy League Book Award—were mainly, it would seem, more intended to honor the original donor or someone from the distant past than to encapsulate some meaningful value, even if the citation read at the ceremony was laced with value-laden words.
In the last of these schools, we saw and felt the disconnect and took to heart the disappointment of students. A look into award-winner demographics over a few years demonstrated that the school’s strategic priorities around equity and inclusion were not playing out in the distribution of awards, including the “honor society” to which the school belonged and to which the school could only admit a defined percentage of students in each class. Something needed to be done to try to bring what we did into alignment with what we said.
A small committee was formed—diverse in all possible ways including experience level—and we began to do research and brainstorm ideas. It was clear that the awards concept was too deeply embedded in the school’s traditions and culture to be eliminated entirely.
We started with a confidential survey to students, asking 1) what students thought about the scope and perceived purpose of existing awards (“Meh”), 2) whether students thought these awards had any relation to the school’s values (“Maybe some”), and 3) whether students found them motivating (“A hard NO”). We even asked which awards should be scrapped or added.
We listened. First to go were the college-named book awards. These were, it seemed, not only just rather fluffy but had been instigated as product placements for the colleges. And they confused people: If you won the Ivy League Book Award as a sophomore, doesn’t that mean that you will automatically get into Ivy League, maybe with a scholarship? Well, no. Fare thee well.
In the end most of the old awards regime was tossed and three new “major” awards were instituted at each upper school grade level.
The first was for “students who have contributed in positive ways to life at [the school]” and have “shared the gift of their own passions and values” and “demonstrated a consistent willingness to take responsibility for enhancing the quality and meaning of membership in the school community.”
The second recognized students “who have demonstrated outstanding intellectual curiosity and engagement … and a deep respect for the collaborative and communal nature of learning. These students have shown exemplary quality in their own work and exemplary spirit and values as members of a learning community.”
The third was awarded to “students whose efforts in all areas of academic life have been exemplary” and “have demonstrated their understanding of the principle that education is an endeavor worthy of sustained commitment.”
Service to the school community, academic achievement, and hard work—these mirrored what both students and faculty had identified as meritorious, and they echoed both the school’s mission and its venerable motto. No handcuffing criteria, and awards at each level were to be discussed and voted on by all the teachers involved with that grade. Multiple winners were welcome.
The school also made a point, when the honor society inductions were announced, to include a somewhat lengthy (and possibly tedious) definition of the society’s published criteria for selection. Whether the school would remain a part of the society was an open topic. And the awards concept in general remains an active conversation—along with things like traditional grades. The unexamined award, we determined, is very definitely not worth giving.
A final note. One year at the awards ceremony the student council president rose to announce the initiation of a council-voted award for a teacher. The first recipient was to be the teacher for whom the award would be forever named. The mortified teacher, taking the engraved silver bowl, mumbled, “I really should be dead before this kind of thing happens,” and remained embarrassed throughout their career whenever the annual winner was announced. Sometimes winning can be as difficult as being lumped among those who did not win.
And consider this: If only winners are named, is it so strange that some who are not named might feel a bit like losers? Is that what we want?
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)