You’ve probably seen this news story about a middle school in Rhode Island that decided to cancel its annual “Honors Night,” apparently at the last possible minute. If you haven’t seen the actual story, you’ve probably read one of the predictable reactions, easily found with a Google search, which I don’t want to link to … or you might have read or heard an angry social-media outburst from a friend who’s convinced it’s all a sign of dumbing down and lowering standards, a Sinister Plot by Those People on the other side of the political spectrum. I don’t want to link to any of those either.
But the juxtaposition of that story with our school’s annual Awards Day program, a tradition that also dates back to the founding of the school, got me thinking about the purposes and agendas behind the awards and recognitions we share. “Everybody,” Ms. X firmly believes, “wants to be recognized! It will make Those Kids work harder!”
But not everybody wants to be recognized. In fact, my friend Ms. B, who will be retiring this year, really doesn’t want a fuss made over her, and she doesn’t want a retirement party, and she doesn’t want any presents. “Don’t you dare get me anything!” she told me the other day; I knew better than to buy anything, but I had been looking to see if I might have something lying around related to the things she loves to collect. From Ms. B’s perspective, the reward for a job well done is the satisfaction of doing it well; the reward for “making it to retirement” (as Ms. X and Mr. Y would probably say) is to be able to retire and enjoy a new chapter of your life. Ms. B’s family is planning a big trip this summer, and she feels, quite strongly, that the trip is more than enough of a reward. And even in the case of the trip, what she’s really interested in is the experience and the time with family.
“Make sure,” said the Important Email and the Important Handout, “to keep awards recipients’ names confidential. But tell those students to sit in the Designated Area.” At the meeting on Monday, I reminded folks about prior confusion about those directions … and about why the list was distributed and why the awards recipients needed to sit in an accessible spot, not up in Those Bleachers. And I was pleasantly surprised during the ceremony itself because it seems Most Teachers had remembered and understood. “It was so chaotic That One Year,” said N or K or somebody. “I’m glad we know what to do this year!”
Three hours in a hot gymnasium, even early in the morning, is a long time … and I’m sure it’s longer if you’re not an awards recipient or presenter, and if you’re just sitting up in Those Bleachers hearing other people’s names called. To its credit, the school finds lots of forms of recognition; there are certificates for athletic participation and community service, various forms of academic recognition, “subject awards” for every class, and all kinds of special tributes to graduating seniors. Somewhere close to half of the student population was sitting either in the senior section or the awards recipient section on Thursday.
I’m not in the business of artificial rewards, the “everybody gets a trophy so nobody feels bad” approach that commentators on the Rhode Island school decry. But I do wonder about the other half of the students, the ones who weren’t recognized for anything on the Big Day. Had they actually done nothing worthy of recognition all year? What about L, who has been making real progress at eliminating the troublemaker label he’s carried for so long? What about U, who’s apparently going to graduate on time when it seemed he might not, and whose graduation comes in the face of obstacles that would make Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y curl up and beg for mercy?
To be fair, I’m not sure U, L, and the others want that kind of public recognition any more than Ms. B does … but nobody thinks of that kind of recognition on Awards Day. The Official Script includes calls for student organizations to stand and be recognized … but for a while, it included student organizations that no longer existed, and hadn’t in years. Those references are gone now, but while they were still there, or crossed out at the last minute, you got the impression that Awards Day was a thing to “do because you do it,” a dream of compliance rather than a meaningful celebration. “I suppose,” an old friend of mine used to say every October, “it’s about That Time to start talking about Christmas presents.” She meant well, and she loved seeking The Perfect Gift for those she cared about. But something about the words or the tone or the scheduling of it all made it sound like gift-seeking was more of a burden and obligation than a joy for her.
There’s a Special Potluck Lunch today in honor of “Educational Bosses’ Appreciation Week.” It’s a New Thing, never done before; two colleagues put it together, and I was glad to contribute a main dish. I hope Ms. X and Mr. Y, if they chose to participate, will feel celebration and recognition rather than burden and obligation as they bring in their salads, desserts, or casseroles. And I hope the Relevant Powers feel meaningfully appreciated rather than checked off a to-do list … but the problem with any recognition process in a factory-style system is that, no matter what you do or intend, it’s so easy for people to feel like you’re doing it because you do it.
How are things different (or are they so different after all) in a joyful learning community? And what other insights and discoveries await on this busy Friday before a much-needed long weekend?