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Syncing School Missions and Traditions: And the Award Goes to…

By Kenneth Muller
Syncing School Missions and Traditions: And the Award Goes to…

Photo by Ariel Besagar on Unsplash
Tradition. Status quo. Policies. Habit. Many of our behaviors, decisions, and actions are based on these. In spite of our sometimes subconscious awareness of the importance of concepts like lateral thinking, innovation, and fairness, routine can manage to obscure them, and this can be especially true within the complex conventions of educational institutions. It was not so long ago that dunce caps and corporal punishment were unquestioned parts of school life… until mainstream experts put the kibosh on such practices. School missions and core values can serve the same purpose as mainstream experts when examined genuinely and put into practice.
Consider academic awards and awards assemblies. Do we think these are good ideas simply because they have always been an aspect of school life? They are, after all, an integral part of school tradition. There is no denying the fundamental importance of acknowledging accomplishments and achievement, but it is perhaps time to redefine exactly how we acknowledge these. Educators and non-educators alike are familiar with developments in the last 30 or more years that have redefined (or should have) the ways in which intelligence is viewed, gauged, and assessed. Multiple intelligences studies and research, for instance, are not new; they are common knowledge and a component of cultural literacy in many parts of the world. However, we do not always apply the knowledge we possess to important decisions we make.
A great deal of time, money, and effort goes into developing core values and mission statements for schools. Consequently, educators should genuinely believe in and apply them, but traditions have a way of interfering with one’s ability to do so. Yes, missions and core values are required by schools (if only for accreditation purposes), but it is worth examining how and when are they put into practice. Invariably, the core values reflect a belief that all members of a school community are entitled to the dignity that should be afforded to every individual in a global community.
Core values can sometimes be verbose and contain obfuscating language, but the basic messages are there, and they should be used to re-evaluate the concept of dignity and the role it plays in the current practice of awarding individuals for academic achievement. To what degree is the ultra-diligent student with limited innate mathematical ability a recipient of this dignity when the algebra award is presented to that one individual with a “math brain” supplemented by private tutoring? An accurate assessment tool for gauging effort and personal improvement simply does not exist.
In addition to academic assessments, students in many schools are measured for their approaches to learning, their international mindedness, and their mastery of individual subject standards. Sounds pretty overwhelming. An unquestioned expectation of educational institutions is that students understand the complex components on which they receive regular assessments, but this is not the case. Disturbing. Perhaps if a student receives high assessment marks for effort and approaches to learning, then educators involved may believe that said student will be fine with not being considered for the more prestigious academic awards. Again, disturbing.
The award that such students do not receive does, in fact, take something away from their effort, because awards are, by their very nature, competitive. This is not to say that the award recipient is not deserving. Competition and ranking, however, reward the few and neglect the majority. George Couros, educational leader and author of The Innovator’s Mindset, makes an insightful point when he claims, “Schools are not about ranking and sorting. They are about learning and creativity in a safe and caring environment.”
Author Alfie Kohn echoes Couros in his book Punished by Rewards, in which he states, “A key takeaway here is that awards aren’t bad just because the losers are disappointed; everyone (including the winners) ultimately lose when schooling is turned into a scramble to defeat one’s peers.”
As a (very) pre-millennial, I can vividly recall the full-school, end-of-year award assemblies and the anxiety they caused, because in those days, everybody’s parents attended, and the competition among them could be fierce. Some of the passive-aggressive comments from parents to children were nothing less than cringe-worthy. As well-meaning as they are intended to be, awards have the potential to be harmful and to leave some long-term emotional scars.
One of many universal rules is that if you have a criticism, then you must also propose a solution. If a school community feels very strongly that awards should be given, this could theoretically be done in separate academic awards evening. Graduations and full-school assemblies, however, should always be level playing fields on which every participant should be afforded the dignity and enjoyment that such events must be designed to dispense for all involved. Use your school’s mission and core values as more than documents required for the classroom wall.
Kenneth Muller is an English and History Teacher at Nord Anglia International School Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

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