Help! The Awards at My School Are Rigged

Are award ceremonies even worth it?

Illustration of teacher presenting a school award

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I teach high school art and every year we collaborate as a department team to choose the senior who is most deserving not just by grades, but by talent, attitude, perseverance, and growth. One of my students joined the Advanced Placement Art class with very little experience. He worked hard to catch up and surpass students who had been enrolled in many art classes prior. I told him to be sure to attend the awards assembly wink wink, but when I met him there he said he didn’t see his name on the program. I quickly learned that our new counselor changed many award recipients last-minute without talking to the teachers. And this counselor used a computer report and focused on G.P.A. I talked to my student and he took things in stride, but I feel terrible. Please tell me if you think this is wrong, too! —Disillusioned and Discouraged

Dear D.A.D.,

This is wrong and insensitive! The end of the year is already jam-packed with tasks and emotion. I can only imagine that sinking feeling you must have felt. I can absolutely understand why you feel so discouraged. It’s short-sighted for the new counselor to change the criteria without many voices and perspectives involved. They should have talked to the teachers or department heads about the criteria for input. I’ve worked in a large district where new leadership did not value historical knowledge, and it was demoralizing. It’s also hypocritical for a counselor to partake in these types of actions and not realize the negative ripple effects they would have. It’s not OK to make kids feel bad and put teachers in such a compromised space.

This is an example of how schools often focus on quantitative data over qualitative evidence of learning. Quantitative data is measurable, countable, and related to numbers. Test scores are a good example. So often, educators run reports and create graphs and pie charts, yet the numbers and percentages don’t tell the whole the story. Numbers can tell us how many, how much, and how often something happens. Yes, we can measure progress and set goals. But it’s a snapshot of the student. Although there is merit to looking at trends and patterns with the numbers, qualitative data is powerful, too.

Qualitative assessment includes teachers’ anecdotal notes with an emphasis on using language to describe approximation and control of ideas. This type of data includes observation, journals, and interviews with students. Often, qualitative assessment helps us understand the how and why of student learning. Teachers know the students and have a more holistic view of the qualities they have related to academic and social learning. Qualitative assessment is more personal and responsive and allows for more specific feedback and goal-setting with students.


I’m sure you did your best to support your disappointed student. I bet you explained why they were so deserving of the recognition. I also hope that you put some specific feedback in writing. This kind of positivity in a handwritten card or note can be even more meaningful than an award. This has me wondering again: are awards ceremonies even worth it? Are there more unintended consequences than benefits? Awards assemblies are so often long and lack substance. Often, they create competition among students and can feel  like popularity contests. The Gifted Guru blog explains how awards ceremonies “can demotivate kids who worked just as hard (or even harder), may have even achieved as much, but since there is only one, received nothing. When you promise that ‘if you do this, you’ll get that,’ but then you don’t get that, it’s a problem.”

Finally, be sure to talk to your principal about what happened. Share the impact on the many students and teachers. Communicate how you want to be a part of the solution. Consider requesting a meeting with the counselor, admin, and department leads to discuss what happened. Also, share the importance of involving teachers in creating the criteria for awards. You can advocate for a more holistic approach, too. Let’s try to use this setback as an opportunity to reflect and improve.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
My new principal is super excited about the end-of-the-year faculty performance at the school talent show. I’m not. They are doing a dance, and I feel like I have two left feet. I’m self-conscious and considering calling out sick for the day. Most of the staff is open and seems to be less inhibited than me. I want to do things out of my comfort zone, but for some reason this one has me wanting to crawl into a cave to hide. I know the kids and families love this kind of stuff and it will be noticeable if I don’t do it. Practices start this week. What advice do you have? —Way Out of My Comfort Zone

Dear W.O.O.M.C.Z.,

You know you aren’t alone in your dread to perform in front of other people, right? So many of us have some form of performance anxiety. WebMD describes how “being the center of attention and having all eyes on you can be stressful. Your body reacts to this situation in much the same way as it would if you were being attacked. Your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ mechanism kicks in, which is why symptoms of stage fright are similar to symptoms that occur when you are in real danger.”

Management thinker Judith Bardwick wrote a book, Danger in the Comfort Zone, where she defines the concept. “The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.”

Yes, there are benefits to stretching yourself out of your comfort zone. This helps us innovate and improve systems, relationships, and other dimensions of our lives. You might even feel more confident and some unexpected joy because of pushing yourself to try new things. But with that said, if you are triggered to the point where anxiety is overriding you and you feel debilitated, start smaller. Maybe you try learning some dance moves on your own at home or just move to the music you love and see how that feels.

We all have a different definition of “fun.” Try not to beat yourself up too much about not wanting to perform in front of the school. Your feelings are valid, too! It’s true that kids and families love seeing the playful, human side of teachers. It takes all sorts of support to pull off a talent show. And there are many ways you can still be involved without having to be a dancer/performer. Consider offering to help with music, costumes, decorations, introducing the performance, or video recording. Even though it’s going to take some courage, ask to talk to your principal about finding other ways you can be involved. Let them know that you want to help in a different way. As teachers, we are asked to be responsive to learners’ needs. Well, that includes teachers, too!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m a middle school history teacher, and I have a student that challenges almost every topic I present, especially around race.  He refuses to complete assignments, saying that the content goes against his beliefs and values. This student stood up and said that there is no such thing as white privilege. He went on to boast about being color blind. I wholeheartedly believe in creating an inclusive classroom.  Also, I want to hold space for a variety of perspectives. However, other students have approached me saying they find his comments offensive. I have a diverse class, and I fear that they may feel dehumanized. I’m trying to find common ground. What advice do you have? —Divided States of America

Dear D.S.O.A.,

I can feel your heaviness, and I understand that you may feel frozen and stuck. It’s a normal reaction to something so layered and complex. Our country has experienced hundreds of years of racialized oppression. In her epic book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson explains, “Slavery was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to Black people. It was an American innovation, an American institution created by and for the benefit of the elites of the dominant caste and enforced by poorer members of the dominant caste who tied their lot to the caste system rather than to their consciences.” As educators, ignoring hard conversations does not make the problem go away. We have the responsibility and opportunity to create safe and brave spaces for healing in the classroom one conversation at a time.

Isabel Wilkerson goes on to describe the power of radical empathy: “Radical empathy … means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.” So, let’s move forward with acknowledgment of our American history juxtaposed with radical empathy.

It’s critical to talk one-on-one with the student who is refusing to complete the assignments. If they don’t agree with the content, it’s their job to refute the ideas and substantiate their thinking. It’s not an option to just avoid the work. I’d also pose the question, how do you think your ideas and comments are affecting others in the classroom? Building self-awareness is key to promoting understanding and empathy.

It’s obvious to me that you are intentional about creating a positive classroom community where diverse perspectives are valued. Although I know you want to honor this student’s perspective, we also need to advocate for human rights. You have students who are offended by the comments, and this needs to be addressed. I’d start by establishing norms for conversations. Include ideas such as no interruptions, criticize ideas and not individuals, listen to understand, and allow everyone the chance to speak. The norms need to be established for the hard conversations to turn into a healing ones.

With explicit norms, the discussions about the concept of being “color blind” will be less reactive and hopefully riper for finding common ground. We can acknowledge that some people have good intentions but may not realize the negative effects of this paradigm. Many experts are saying that the color blind argument is actually making it harder for us to move forward in a more empathetic way.

Samantha Vincenty, senior writer for Oprah Daily, writes about race: “Unfortunately, however, I can say firsthand that some people still really don’t want to talk about it. At all. They’ll be the first to tell you they don’t have a racist bone in their body, and they don’t care if you’re white, black, purple, or blue, etc. In fact, they say, they’re ‘color blind’—meaning, they don’t even see race. And that refusal to see it often goes hand-in-hand with an urgent desire to stop discussing racial disparities as soon as possible.” The thing is WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT RACE in order to address marginalization, dehumanization, and violence against people of color.

Thank you for being an educator for equity. The National Equity Project defines educational equity as each child receiving what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential. We need rebel leaders who will take on difficult topics like race and curate content to facilitate discussions and learning so that success and failure are no longer predictable by student race, economic, or any other social factor.

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Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’ve been teaching for 12 years now. For the last six, I’ve been in a job share with another teacher. She works Mondays and Tuesdays, and I work Wednesdays and Thursdays. We trade off Fridays. She is an excellent teacher, and it’s been such a wonderful partnership. We know we can count on each other. It was so great when we were both having babies and could cover each other for maternity leave. But now that my kids are a little older, I’m itching to go back full-time. I “own” the job, so it’s my call, but I don’t want to hurt my partner’s feelings. How do I break it to her without ruining our friendship?

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Help! The Awards at My School Are Rigged