When Your Child Receives an Award

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You could see her pride from the front door. “Look mom!  Look what I got!”  Thea stands in front of me holding a signed award of recognition certificate given to her by her incredible 4K teacher.   Apparently on November 5th Thea had great behavior and she now hands me the certificate to prove it.  Of course it goes on the fridge.

That night as I clean up after dinner, the award catches my eye and the irony of it hanging there so prominently hits me.  I don’t believe in awards in my classroom, it is one of the things I threw out 3 years ago and have never regretted.  And yet, today I saw just what that piece of paper meant to my kid.  You couldn’t have burst her bubble even if you tried.  But still…I wonder if this means that November 5th was the only day Thea has been behaving well?  Or was it her turn to be awarded?  What did she do exactly to get this recognition?  Did every kid get it?  I ask her and she has no idea.  All she knows is that her teacher gave this to her and to her that is all that matters.  Granted she is 4 and is not the most reliable explainer but still I wonder how did she even earn it?

Did my students ever know why they earned something?  The thing with awards is that they are subjective and are meant for show.  We pick a goal and then award a kid if they have met that goal.  Often we don’t tell them how they can earn something but instead surprise them when they have.  We make a show of it so that others know that they should try to earn one as well.  We can’t really give one to everyone because then they don’t mean as much, so we continue creating losers and winners in our classrooms simply by giving them a piece of paper or trinket in front of their classmates.  You see, it is not the actual award that sets the kid apart, it is the show of it in front of others.  You need to see that your award is special to you for it to mean something and that just sits wrong with me.   We think that physical awards make kids feel special, yet our words can do the same, in fact, often our words and taking time to say things to a child will have a much more lasting impact than any piece of paper can.  Than any trinket.  Than any ticket.

For now the award stays on our fridge, in a few days, she will no longer care about it and it becomes just another piece of paper in our already paper-filled house.  I don’t plan on keeping it and although Thea tends to hoard paper, I don’t think she will mind.  To her it was validation that she is a good student, to me it was just more questions as to the great intentions we may have as teachers.  Do we really feel we need to award students certificates any more?  Do we really need to put on a show?  Or are we just perpetuating the myth that there must always be winners and losers for people to feel special?

I am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” will be released this fall from PLPress.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

9 thoughts on “When Your Child Receives an Award

  1. PR, first of all, once again in life, this post is a MUST read…I loved it. Thank you for your honesty.

    Secondly, we transferred my oldest daughter to a different district in 3rd grade. She was the “new girl” the entire year. Because of some existing clique-y behavior, she came home crying on the first day of school and things were never quite right from there on that year. They have WEEKLY ‘celebration’ assemblies, where various awards are handed out. My straight A, beautifully mannered, former teachers pet daughter did not recieve ONE award the entire year. Pernille…every single week my little girl watched her peers get award after award, sometimes more than one..and she didn’t get one. Not even a “you showed up this week” award. Her teacher *finally* went on maternity leave and lo and behold, she got two that first week with a sub.

    Do you know how long it has taken me to undo that damage? She still makes straight A’s but she has become the most eager to please, fearful of her behavior, kinda girl.

    As an educator, I call BAD FORM, but as a mom? I better not see you at Target.

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  3. I think the award conversation has become a bit skewed. While awards that are about winners and losers are problematic, “awarding” “honoring” “celebrating” “recognizing” are important things. No matter what the form is, we need to let students and each other know we value them and by pointing out specific achievements we make it more meaningful than simply good job. We don’t give kids awards to motivate them or to rank them but to honor them for who they are or what they’ve done. Handwritten notes are wonderful mementos of that as are a wealth of other means.

    I think we’ll get better at this as we expand our notion of what matters beyond the “schooly” stuff. But in the mean time, I think we continue to be diligent in honoring folks. I don’t want to dis celebrating success I just want to define it differently.

    • I do think the no awards ceremony can become one-sided, but my point here is that I would rather see a recognition of my child in the form of a conversation or a hand written note, rather than a generic award. I recognize and celebrate my students all of the time, but I don’t need to have them “earn” something or give them a certificate with little meaning to make them feel special.

      • I’ve struggled with this for 16 years of teaching (4th, 5th, and 1st grades). A few years ago I started sending post cards home to my students. When they have a great day – that might mean behavior-wise or academically or showing kindness to another – I grab a postcard (I get special ones printed) and write a quick note to the child.

        I figure it’s always fun to get mail. The parents will see it, especially since many of my first graders can’t read these notes on their own. It feels like a great balanced way to celebrate individuals without it feeling like a competition.

  4. I do think the age of the student plays into this. If it makes her feel good for a few days, great. She’s 4 and we need to make sure kids have good experiences in their first years of school. I don’t necessarily think we should give kids awards for things they are supposed to do, like good behavior, but when there is something special to honor, as Dean mentioned, we should.

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