Rethinking Student Award Ceremonies

elementary school boy receiving a trophy in classroom with teach

We live in a trophy-obsessed culture, constantly seeking public recognition for what we should be doing well in the first place—whether that’s our jobs or home life. All of this is just as true in the school setting, and at the end of each year—sometimes, more often—I read or hear about students honored in lavish, over-the-top athletic and academic award ceremonies.

Here is why, for the most part, I don’t support award ceremonies:

  1. Most schools already use grades, and thereby function on an incentive-based platform. I don’t like that system, but I do my best to work with it—as well as to find some redeeming rationale for its existence. Whatever your thoughts, I urge you to consider whether the line gets crossed when schools also champion academic and athletic awards—or any other additional external motivator. As it stands, too many students care too much about the grade, and far too little about engaging in the learning process.
  2. Most people (parents, teachers, administrators, students, and even athletic coaches) know who excels at what. With each announcement, ceremony-goers sarcastically say to themselves, or those sitting nearby, “Wow, that’s another surprise!” There is merit in public recognition, but if the public already recognizes the merits of the person being recognized, what’s the point? I don’t believe that students are so insecure that they require a ceremony to affirm their accomplishments and contributions. I grant the need for rare exceptions, but only if a student has accomplished something unbelievably fantastic, original, and moving. In that vein, I think of Jack Andraka, who at 16 made significant contributions to cancer research.
  3. Too often, award ceremonies celebrate straight-A students for “going above and beyond,” “inspiring others to improve,” “constantly demonstrating expert-level mastery,” or something similarly impressive and affectionate. But what if a subject comes effortlessly to the bright-eyed student walking to the stage to receive her award, to the sound of thunderous applause from a crowded auditorium? In such a scenario, it’s important to know what one is really celebrating; hard work, perhaps, but to an equal or greater extent, also an innate intellect, granted to the recipient at the moment of her conception. To be blunt, why stop at celebrating only the child?
  4. Along those lines, I’m nearly as convinced that award ceremonies are more for parents than anybody else. Let me say that I’m not a parent, and that I couldn’t understand the pride that comes with bragging (in the best sense of the term) about one’s child. All the same, when parents arrive with an array of recording devices, more concerned with documenting the event than truly being present in it, I wonder certain things. Will this be the only time that their child wins something, so that for posterity, they must keep the camera flashing? Or do the parents simply want more photos to covet, to help them live vicariously though their child’s accomplishments?
  5. Conversely, what does the student think of her family’s making such a big deal of her awards? What if next year she doesn’t win an award? Will her parents be angry or disappointed? Will that student consider taking steps, honest or dishonest, to ensure continued success? Will this affect how she goes about learning? Will this student feel equally safe in taking risks, and learning from failure? Or will she do whatever she can to play it safe, all to win some award?
  6. What about the vast majority of students who never win anything? Do they feel reconciled to their inadequacies? How does never winning impact how they approach learning? Thirsty for an award, are they more likely to cut corners or take fewer risks? What long-term effects will this have? What about that student who, after working harder than anybody else, still can’t get it? Will he give up? What if he can’t afford a tutor? What if he works after school to help support his family, and he can’t stay late to receive extra help?

I don’t mean to argue that award ceremonies are never warranted. However, they shouldn’t be reserved for only the brightest students and most talented athletes—with a few awards sprinkled throughout for kids who, lacking such praiseworthy attributes, still try hard. What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments section.



As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

6 Comments

  • Reply August 12, 2014

    Linda

    After reading just the title, I knew that I totally agreed with your article. You prompted me to send this email to my principal:
    Mike,
    I must say that I agree with my friend, David, who wrote this. The award ceremonies waste time and basically serve as bragging rights for parents while simultaneously making the un awarded students feel even less. Another way to use time in a more fun and spirit building assembly would be better served. Just my opinion, but thought it was worth sharing with time on task being an issue.

    Thank you for stating what so many others think every time there is an awards ceremony!

  • Reply May 2, 2015

    Kay

    As I read this article, I found I was nodding quietly to myself at every one of your points.
    I am a 15 year old high school student. While I may be considered ‘smart’ in a sense, that is because I find it relatively easy to grasp a new concept and think things through logically. On the other hand I am terribly bad at memorising things, so I do spent a great amount of time studying. Since I am not naturally a genius and have to put in a good amount of work and study to achieve a high result. I find that a teachers recognition of an accomplishment does spur me on. On the other hand the award ceremony at the end of the year is needless as I have already recieved the recognition I needed throughout the term.

    I am clapped on the back and rewarded for consistent high grades all year but, when I look back at my classmates I don’t feel proud. It was obvious who was going to get an award. I feel sad because there are a great many students who deserve it more than me. Those who brought up their grades by unbelievable amounts but still didn’t cut the ‘merit’ mark sit back feeling unaccomplished. Those who I’ve witnessed trying harder, much harder, than me are also unawarded.
    So next term, when I sit at home studying again my usual amount, some of those same students who weren’t recognised for their hard work might try harder than ever in hopes of being praised this time. The others? Well I’ve seen many get so discouraged that they stop trying. They feel like they’ll never get a distinction for their efforts because they’re not predisposed to the innate intellect that those like me are said to have.

    In my opinion award ceremonies would be much better if they were not based solely on high grades and natural abilities for extracurricular activities but on individual students improvements, or consistent attitudes towards schoolwork and homework. I would rather see ten awards go to students for improving their grades (or skills in extracurriculars) than one award to a student who did nothing special to deserve it.

    Thank you for writing this article, I really hope someday there will be a change to this detrimental system in schools.

  • Reply July 24, 2015

    Nini White

    Research on the effects of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation definitely coincide with your main points. Each of your questions raise important issues that have short and long term consequences. Thank you.

  • Reply June 3, 2016

    AM Jones

    Hello, I found this article while searching the web full of frustration after a 5th grade award and graduation ceremony I attended last night. I was disappointed and concerned. I wrote my son’s teacher with the email I will paste here. I grew up in a different school system and I have been a college instructor of foreign language for 10 years, but I did not have much knowledge of how regular school worked and how to work with it. Which waters to navigate, the kind of networks or presence you need to create. I thought school was about commitment, motivation (possibly intrinsic), interest, efforts and fun in learning. Now I know it is not only, may be rarely, that. Now I know that grades are not the only extrinsic triggers of students motivation, but there are even public awards and certificates that makes some kids feel special, however stuck in keeping their own standard in the future, and other kids feel left out. The public character of the big “graduation” ceremonies – 5th grade!! – is a primitive mentality still deriving from the small town feeling, the good honorable citizen, the church goer and so on. In my country we have big public schools where international scholars graduated and work, but no graduation ceremonies and consequential awards. We study because we want to find a good job and because we love that specific field. University doesn’t cost us a fortune and we can continue to earn degrees all our life, if we want to, just because we are interested. Nobody is going to prize and reward us. The knowledge of the subject, the exploration or a field we love is the best reward.
    I copy here my email to the teacher, as you can tell English is my second language, I hope it is clear enough.
    ——–

    “Tonight I experienced another aspect of the U.S. education system and I did not like it. And for what I read online it is under discussion and several schools are abandoning it. It is this reward system which works on limited criteria for what I understand. Only so many kids can be selected and only for some subjects with the risks of undermining kids’ intrisic motivation in learning. Both in the reward receivers and in those who go home without anything.

    It seems like you gratify hard work but actually you ask these kids to work for a grade and a certificate. Years of this system to grow up with and now I understand all the fuss one of my students made years ago because the math of her GPA did not allow her to get the Honor Society award. Although I agreed with her and finally with the department Chair we decided to give her the award anyway, because she was an outstanding student in my subject, I found all the trial such a stupid thing in my mind. Stupid for me since I grew up in a different school system, but it was actually a battle for her to win, to feel good about her achievements, as if her passion for this particular foreign language and her grades weren’t a good enough reason to feel good already.

    Tonight my son did not receive any award, what am I supposed to share with him? My real thoughts, that is: It’s all BS in my mind? Or should I adhere to the system and say like a ‘good parent’: work harder on crucial subjects and someone might notice you one day and reward you? Teaching him that he has to study to be noticed and get a prize and not because he loves the subject? May be the key is this one: Study because learning opens your mind – although school testing restrictions seem to do the opposite at times – and then if you get an award fine, but if you don’t fine too.

    I have to say that this is like another sport game though. You are publicly observed (by the entire community of students and parents) and rewarded or benched. It never ends…. there must necessarily be winners or losers in this society and at this young age too. Why not just learners?”

  • Reply April 8, 2017

    Miles

    I’m about to graduate from college Summa Cum Laude and a double major.
    I don’t CARE about recognition ceremonies and feel like it’s a complete waste of my time, I got straight As because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing while going to school, just like I’m supposed to be doing work while I’m at work.

    I don’t expect or want any kind of recognition for simply doing my job, just like I don’t want to be forced to participate in any kind of ceremony for doing the things I am supposed to be doing.
    Yet everyone seems to think I should be excited, and they refuse to accept my unwillingness to participate.
    I worked really hard to achieve that which I did, and I think instead of a pointless recognition ceremony, I would much rather have time to myself where I can accomplish my next tasks.
    Why is everyone insisting I waste my time?

  • Reply September 4, 2017

    Rick Holinger

    I couldn’t disagree more. We should just pay everyone the same wage. Doctors, labourers etc. Everyone works hard at their job….yeah right. Some work harder then others and should enjoy the fruits of their labour. They didn’t take anything away from the other person, they just worked harder. This is the real world. What are we preparing our children for? Fantasy Land where everyone is reduced to the same mediocre level. How sad I am for our children’s future when they realize not everyone gets to win despite what the social re-engineers have told them.

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