Teaching Reflections · Topics for Parents and Students

The Politics of Awards Season in Education

June is awards season in education. From athletics to graduations and everything in between, students are being handed scrolls, plaques, ribbons and medals. Some of these designations are well deserved, while others unfortunately end up being highly subjective and influenced by factors other than the award criteria. Just sayin’.

Why are awards such a political issue? Meetings at our school for athletic banquet and graduation are a political minefield. Those on the left want kids to get awards if they ‘need’ them or if they are ‘disadvantaged’ in some way. The middle ground teachers want to spread the wealth to make everyone as content as possible, and those on the right actually think awards should go to kids who deserve them. I’m assuming this situation is mimicked at a multitude of other schools in June.

I’m a teacher on the right. It irks me to no end when a student is slighted because they have received ‘too many other awards’ or looked over for athletic awards due to the fact that they can have a ‘bad attitude’ at times (bad attitudes are a pretty subjective assessment). Why can’t we just give awards to the kids who’ve actually earned them and leave the politics at the door. Why does it have to be such a politically correct endeavour ?

Unfortunately, when we let subjectivity and political correctness take over the award selection process, we devalue them. Our students aren’t stupid. They know themselves and their peers; when someone gets an award they genuinely don’t deserved based on the given criteria they know exactly what happened. Unfortunately, they just have no control in changing the decision. And as a result the award ceremony loses credibility.

I’ll be honest, I felt that I was the student slighted at times for awards in elementary and secondary school, and I distinctly remember peers being slighted as well.  When this occurred we all talked about it, as did the student who won.  This experience soured me  and many of my peers regarding the award selection process, and I felt that awards were often tied to much more than actual student achievement.

It wasn’t until university that I saw another side of award designations. Academic awards were based solely on academic percentage and academic work.  Moreover, in athletics, awards became less about ‘attitude’ and ‘team play’ and more about skill and game dominance.  For example, I was named twice to provincial all star teams due to the fact that the selection was made by a vote of all the coaches in the league, based solely on performance in game play. Often, all other coaches knew about you was your face, number and the damage you did to their team during a match.  This experience did change my attitude about the award process in schools for a time……until I returned to the public school system as a teacher.

My experience on the other side of the award system as a teacher has been exactly what I suspected as a student. If award criteria is based solely on quantitive criteria, the deserving student must win, but if the criteria allows for subjectivity, it opens the door for many other factors to be considered. Often, the students who get subjective awards are the nice kids, those who need awards, the hard workers, and those with the best attitude. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great qualities for students to have but they often aren’t the dominant part of the award criteria.

Part of the issue is that we know our students too well; we let our personal evaluations and emotions take over and suddenly awards aren’t about criteria, but who we want to win. In retrospect, the reason awards at the university level are less subjective is because of the distance between those selecting the recipients. They don’t really ‘know’ each of the potential candidates personally, they are only given a summary of their achievements. This allows for subjectivity to be thrown out the window, and a platform for authentic awards to be issued based on merit, not personality.

How can we check our subjectivity at the door when selecting award recipients? It seems like a rational thing to do, but then again this is my opinion. I know many teachers ‘on the left’ and ‘in the middle’ who believe the exact opposite  – that awards are meant to be subjective and spread amongst the heard regardless of criteria.

What is your opinion about award season in education? Is your selection process a political minefield like ours? Share your comments and reflections below!





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