Last week, I went to two award ceremonies for both of my children in one day. The parents were there with their cameras and telephones taking photos and videos. It was standing-room only, but I am not working this summer and I live close by, so I was there early. It was a proud moment for all the parents who received word from their teachers that their daughter or son was receiving an award.
A Sad Moment
As the names were called, I saw proud children run up on stage. Many were cheered on by their classmates. At one point the students who made it to the Honor Roll were called. These were students who received A’s and B’s on their 5th grade report card. I noticed that there was one student on stage who began crying. I thought it was because she was overcome with joy. It turned out that she was crying because she did not make it to the Principal’s Honor Roll, that is, students who earned all A’s. She was expecting to be called up for THAT list, not the list that included "B" students. She was overcome with disappointment to the point that not just her teacher had to talk with her, but two other teachers did the same in an effort to calm her down during the ceremony.
Then there were those students who did not receive anything; those students whose parents did not come up to give hugs of congratulations or words of conciliation after the ceremony. I am not one of those parents who believe that every child should get a trophy, or that we need to protect our students from disappointment. On the contrary, I fully support teachers who have consequences for missed homework and irresponsible behavior. What bothers me is that in this school, in this district where the average household income is well over $110K per year, privilege is what was on display that day. The children who received all A’s for the most part have tutors, parents who stay home with them, or attend tutoring programs like Sylvan and Kumon. Those children receive extra help. The same is likely for children who receive athletic awards in our district. Those students are part of club teams and have coaches helping them improve their skills. As I've heard, many also have parents who do their homework for them "in order to fit it all in." To me, awards ceremonies such as these are more a display of income and privilege, rather than ability. Should this sort of behavior be rewarded?
A similar display took place at the Spring concert this past June. For some background, the K-6 music program in our district is run by four teachers who teach instruments and chorus across five schools. At our school specifically, they manage music instruction for over 100 students at a time and most students do their best to learn their instrument. If they want to excel, though, they are instructed to find a tutor to supplement the learning. Everyone in the class, still receives an A, but that is not quite reflective of the actual learning or instruction that occurs there.
During the concert, the better players, the ones that receive tutoring and outside help, are seated up front. The remaining students are then seated behind them, out of view, and (hopefully) further away from earshot. I found out that this is common in music programs. Towards the end of the concert, seven of the very best students were highlighted as exceptional and the teacher even used the term "gifted" to describe them. With much fanfare, they were moved to seats right in front of the parents to play a solo piece. They played a song from the Beatles called “Yesterday” but it might as well have been "Imagine" to complete the irony. Of course, these were all students who received music instruction outside of school, and have likely been playing for many years already. What kind of message is that for all the other students? Are they not "gifted"?
Schools can be great institutions of learning and equalizers of opportunity. Sometimes, though, they become institutions that replicate the social order of the town or district in which they are located and thus mirror the existing income stratification of our society. Awards ceremonies in these schools perpetuate inequality, and increase the pressures students feel to do well.
Next year, we are thinking of opting our children out of the public acknowledgement of their achievement in the Awards Ceremony. Competition is a good motivator, but when it becomes the means to an end we do not desire, then it erodes compassion and becomes a way of perpetuating economic privilege.
Recently I heard that one of our local students attempted suicide at the junior high down the street - the child was just 12 years old. Is the example we want for our children?