Thursday was Awards Day, when the whole school gathers together in an almost-air-conditioned gymnasium to celebrate the academic and other accomplishments of the school year. It’s always a bit hectic in the morning, especially for seniors (who appear in their graduation regalia for the first time) and for us department chairs and other “awards presenters,” who sometimes need to be in two or three places at once. It can also be a hard day for students who don’t receive awards, who spend a couple of hours sitting on uncomfortable bleachers, hearing other people’s names called, watching others receive trophies, certificates, and such. I know of schools that have eliminated whole-school awards ceremonies out of fear of what “the other ones” might do … and depending on the relationships between those “other ones” and the schools they attend, that might not be such a bad idea.
I’m not sure how I feel about awards ceremonies anyway. Celebrating real accomplishments is important, but do real accomplishments have artificial quotas? For many years, the policy was that “the best student” in each course received an award; there wasn’t a provision for multiple winners, even if more than one student had perfect scores on everything. That’s changed for the better, but I still wonder about the mindsets of scarcity and of “objective” measurement that lie at the heart of such a ceremony. There were some great conversations (here and here) about authentic assessment and portfolios on Google+ recently, and I thought about them as I imagined Ms. X fretting over her choice between two students that both “had a 99” on decision day.
I also found it odd that, for all our talk about “recognizing excellence,” only two faculty members had turned in the form where we indicate our accomplishments for the year. Do as we say, not as we do?
But for all the factory-qualities I complain about at times, our little school does have some aspects of a joyful community. And even the students Ms. X is quick to label as “the worst and laziest” – even they tend to tolerate, if not actually enjoy the Awards Day program, at least for a while.
On Thursday, though, I found myself oddly detached from the ceremony. A decade ago, when the school was a very different place, we always took time – usually the day before the ceremony – to talk with students, especially those new to the school, about how we’d like them to behave during the ceremony and why that was important. But, like many other old traditions, that one gradually faded away. At the beginning of the ceremony, someone asked the audience to “please hold your applause until all names have been called” for each set of awards. But no one explained why, and many of our current students aren’t good at auditory directions, especially in a large-group, echo-filled setting like a gymnasium. At big, public events they usually attend, you’re supposed to clap and cheer and shout.
So were more and more cheers – sincere ones, not ugly, mocking ones – as the morning went by. One of my newer colleagues mentioned how impressed he’d been with the ceremony – and with the number of awards students received – but Ms. X and Mr. Y were dismayed. “What is wrong with those children and their parents?” Someone asked me later. “Don’t they know how you’re supposed to behave?”
Well, for one thing, when you’re eighteen, you really aren’t a child anymore, are you? Perhaps that label had something to do with the behavior Ms. X saw as “bad.” But her second question bothered me more. Who gets to define “you” and “supposed to,” I wondered? Most people only know how they normally behave … and if you want someone to change normal behavior, it’s better to ask and explain in advance than to stew and fret later. That’s why I reminded C she needs to come by after Graduation Practice and finish her Minor Assessment. That’s why I told B to remind B to turn his in. Ms. X, in the name of “teaching them some responsibility,” would have Given A Zero … and then, with someone’s graduation in peril, with crying parents in the office of some Power or other, Ms. X would have been irate. I’ve heard a lot of stewing and fretting on that very topic over the years – stewing and fretting easily have been avoided with some communication or organization.
Maybe Ms. X likes stewing and fretting because the process is … more fun? Less trouble? Less difficult in the short term? Ms. X and Mr. Y have been in a stewing, fretting mood anyway. Mr. Y, having misremembered a Former Policy, was pontificating to some younger, anxious-looking teachers, and was surprised when I pointed out he’d had the Former Policy completely backward. And Many A Ms. X was fretfully annoyed by the cheers during the ceremony. “I think some of them probably even behave that way in church!” whispered One Ms. X, who comes from a faith-tradition of Sitting Still and Listening. As I thought of the stunning religious diversity of our students – every imaginable faith tradition, plus “none of the above” and “do your own thing” – I wasn’t sure where to begin to respond.
So I didn’t. I just didn’t.
On Google+ yesterday, Debbie highlighted the importance of perspective-taking:
It all sounds so crazy, doesn’t it? Fire of Truth time…it sounds good when presented from one perspective but when reframed it is bizarre that we would even consider it a good plan. Time to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that sounds good from every perspective – with all inputs coming together, enhancing our Wisdom and that of the next generation, the students.
Ms. X, so busy “reviewing them,” so convinced that Her Way is the Only Way, has no time, no energy for “such nonsense.” And, as Brendan noted,
That brings up the pronoun question, the “we” vs. “they” vs. “I.” And it gets into how roles are defined and performed. *Teacher as mentor* is one thing,teacher as factory manager is quite another. The juggling between those two as described on this blog show just how difficult that can be, even with an acute awareness of the problem. What hope do Ms. X and Mr. Y have to help students become who they truly are?
In the end, I suppose, we do become who we truly are … or if we don’t, perhaps we just get used to the false, destructive selves that we’ve pretended to be. You can’t live in joyful community without slowly becoming more authentic, but authenticity is scary when you’ve worn a mask for so long. How will we builders of joyful community help our students, our coworkers, ourselves become more authentic? Knowing we’re not all the way there ourselves, how will we help others on their journeys? And what happens if – when – that journey takes us out of the factory-security and into a new, unknown world?