I wrote this blog post several years ago and since we are nearing the end of the school year, I thought it was worth repeating – the questions still remain important to consider. Shortly after publishing the post, I received a wonderful response from Jon Postma about my questions. At the time, Jon was a teacher at Lafayette Christian in Indiana and has since become Principal at Lansing (Illinois) Christian. He has granted permission to me to share his thoughts in this blog post.
It’s nearing the end of the school year and time for the annual award distributions. We hand out certificates, trophies, and compile lists of achievements in almost any and every category. Whether in the early grades or at graduation, we seek to point out accomplishments of students. I am guessing that if we could sit down and talk for a few minutes, dear reader, that we would share some mixed feelings about this end of year ritual.
This is an area of our school life that poses potentially large risks to our mission. It is an area that goes largely unexamined and one where we may quickly adopt the practices of other schools. It is what we get excited about that speaks the loudest message to our students. I am concerned that sometimes what we do in awards assemblies may actually contradict the kinds of thoughtful work that we have done throughout many previous months and years.
I don’t have the answer to this, but am providing some questions below that might be useful in generating conversations within faculties. I’d be delighted to post your responses.
- If we are presenting awards to encourage students, are there a larger number who are actually discouraged by this process?
- What are we recognizing, and what related values are being held up to our students? Is what we are highlighting in alignment with the mission of our school?
- If we truly believe that all students are gifted and loved by God, how do we determine which gifts to highlight? Could we, or even should we, recognize students for growth in discipleship and becoming more Christ-like?
- If we take a “broad recognition” approach and recognize every student for something, is it worth doing?
- Are we distinctively different in our award ceremonies than any other school?
- Do our awards truly celebrate the joy and creativity of learning or a narrowly defined competition that sorts out winners and losers by subjective standards?
- Are students motivated or punished by rewards and recognition? Do we essentially crucify Christ again when we put kids into camps of “winners” and “losers”? Is this a matter of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer?
- What was Jesus’ response to his three closest disciples when they were concerned about recognition and who was going to be first, second, and third? What was Paul’s response about who should get the credit for helping bring others into the kingdom?
Below is the thoughtful and inspiring response I received from Jon Postma:
Every year I have the privilege of standing in front of the school to present an academic award for my subject area. This is an award given after spending three, roller-coaster years with students during their 6th, 7th, and 8th grade years. I also have had the difficult task of collaboratively deciding on three graduation awards given to 8th grade students–Christian Leadership, Christian Service, and Fruit of the Spirit awards.
When I think about these awards, it is never done in the context of a purely academic perspective. I look for a student who enjoys and engages with the subject area. I look for the foot-washer, one who follows the servant leadership of Jesus and has served their fellow students. I take input from students themselves through yearly spiritual self-assessments and surveys. Lastly I keep my eyes and ears open to the Lord’s leading.
This year my award is going to a student who has a learning disability in my subject area. Even so, the student has engaged, persisted, served, and blessed those around him or her. Earlier this year the student said to a younger student who was struggling in this subject area as he or she studied for a test, “Would you like me to help you study. There are so many things I have learned that could help you.” Will there be some students who are troubled by this decision, thinking they deserved the award for their better grades? Yes, I can imagine some might feel that way, but all the students will recognize the deserving qualities that this student has displayed for all to see.
Last year my award went to “the entire 8th grade class.” There were a lot of talented students in that class. But their greatest accomplishment was being open to God’s leading as He changed them from “my little piranhas” as 6th grade students, constantly picking each other apart, to a class that cared for each other and worked collaboratively with each other in my class. I struggled with the decision to give it to the entire class. There were parts of me that felt it wasn’t right. Were there those that may not have deserved it? Probably. Were there those that thought they alone deserved the award? Probably. I got a few raised eyebrows from my colleagues. But that is the direction that I felt God leading.
Each year as I present the award, I have found myself with tears in my eyes and a voice that trembles and shakes. Not because of what the students have accomplished, not because of the long hours working with and for these students, but because of the awesome privilege of highlighting to the community what it is that God has done in the lives of these students and waiting in eager expectation for what God will do in the years ahead.
Maybe these thoughts will help others as they consider how awards are presented and recipients chosen for awards ceremonies. I still see value in these ceremonies if what is being celebrated comes from these types of attitudes and perspectives.
Dan Beerens is an educational consultant, author, international speaker, and educational leader. Before starting Dan Beerens Consulting in May 2010, he served as Vice President of Learning Services and Director of Instructional Improvement at Christian Schools International. Prior to that, he was the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Holland Christian Schools. Dan has also worked as teacher and principal in urban and suburban public and Christian schools in Wisconsin and Illinois. He serves as a Senior Fellow at CACE (Center for the Advancement of Christian Education), represents Curriculum Trak sales and professional development and serves as co-chair of the annual Christian Deeper Learning conference. He blogs regularly for CACE and is the author of Evaluating Teachers for Professional Growth: Creating a Culture of Motivation and Learning (Corwin Press) and co-editor of the recent book MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education (ACSI).