Friday, June 3, 2016

Teacher Superlatives

It’s check-out time for teachers all over the country. I don’t know how it’s done everywhere, but I do know that in the two districts in which I’ve worked, this involves running around frantically looking for the proper signatures that denote that proper end-of-year procedures have been followed. You know, like cleaning the classroom so it can be used for training during the summer, finalizing grades (and notifying parents of failures), filling out inventories, and other equally nauseating stimulating tasks. I couldn’t decide whether to be sarcastic or realistic there, so I went for both.

In the midst of this chaos, schools often hold an end-of-year faculty and staff luncheon, dinner, banquet, whatever, to celebrate successes and end the year on a positive note. Awards are often a part of this celebration. In the last two years, for instance, I received awards for perfect attendance, for reaching the lofty goal of coaching an Academic Decathlon team to the state competition, and an “intelligence” award. I felt confident that I earned each of these awards, as I’m sure others felt good about theirs, but what happens when we watch colleagues earn awards that we don’t necessarily agree with? We should shrug it off, right? I mean, we don’t have to agree with everything, and no one likes a sore loser, or non-winner. But what if we really, really don’t agree? What if you’re not the only one who notices disturbing trends in who gets the awards, and for what, and it turns the would-be celebration into something more closely resembling the popularity contest that is the students’ class superlatives? What if enough people feel uncomfortable that the “celebration” actually evokes defensive emotions and damages morale?

I think just about everyone remembers class superlatives: most beautiful, most likely to succeed, most creative, and so on. In theory, this is a way for students to honor the special traits they see in their peers, and that’s so nice, right? I know that one of my students who was named most creative this year definitely exemplifies creativity. She’s awesome. A true artist. Is she the most creative? I don’t know. How do you compare apples and oranges? There are many ways to be creative. I wouldn’t want to take away from her, but there are many other creative students who are just quietly doing their thing – maybe in creative writing or in choreographing dance, for instance. The point is, when you start ascribing the word “most” to things, it gets tricky. I know; not everyone can “get a trophy.” It’s okay to win. It’s okay to not win. Why miss out on celebrating the accomplishments of a few just because it negates the accomplishments of many? Well, if only there was a way to avoid negating the accomplishments of many…

So this leads back to my musing about the teacher awards. Did I deserve an award for being intelligent? Well, yes. I’m pretty freakin’ brilliant, but so are so many of my colleagues in a variety of ways, and the reason I know that it hurt the feelings of others when I won this particular award is because at least one person immediately tried to downplay it and tell me that I only got it because I coached Academic Decathlon – lest I actually have a whole 30 seconds of feeling happy and recognized. I knew that this cattiness came from feelings of pain deep down, so that response prompted me to spend the last two years quietly observing the reactions around the room as each award was handed out, usually to a largely predictable group.

Among high school students, everyone knows who will be nominated for the superlative awards – especially “most beautiful” – before the ballots even come out. And just as the “most beautiful” are not always actually the most beautiful, teacher awards are not always given to those who most deserve them. In each case, sometimes popularity wins out above all else.

So why does this matter enough to write a lengthy blog post about? As I said, after finally receiving some recognition and immediately having it negated, I began to watch people. I watched my senior students during their voting process for superlatives and while they processed the news of winners. I watched teachers during the last two years of awards. In each case, I saw morale drop by detectable degrees. I saw people feel as though the lines between the cool kids and the outliers were more clearly drawn. I saw hurt feelings and, sometimes, anger. And if you think this is all juvenile, I can promise you: I saw more anger and resentment in the adults than in the students.

Here’s a case study for how this happens. I’ll share a personal story, but rest assured I have heard similar anecdotes from many others. My first year teaching, I walked into a rough situation. My students had had substitute teachers for almost the entirety of their fall semester, and I came in mid-year. I was ready to go. I spent all of Christmas break working on my curriculum, and I worked quickly to build the trust and classroom culture that my students deserved. That was the only year I had seniors thanking me for having them work at the end of the year, and if you’ve ever taught seniors in the spring, you’ll know how special that is. We had a great journey together, and not only did I ask for virtually no help (because I was rocking it), I followed every procedure for all the extra stuff (TELPAS, etc.) and didn’t use the “I’m a new teacher” excuse. Was I thanked? Not really. Was I recognized? No. Did I win one of the awards that would have correlated with all I had accomplished? No way. At first, that was fine. One doesn’t get into teaching for the recognition, so I just kept swimming, as Dory would advise, until I began to notice that pattern that the other grumbling teachers had noticed. Since my first year, I had seen people win who admitted to their classes that they didn’t know what they were doing because they hadn’t taught it before, or who cried at the drop of a hat almost daily, etc. I admit that I did begin to wonder what one had to do to be recognized. I began to feel resentment. It became clear I wasn’t one of the “cool kids.” Eventually, the fact that I felt invisible and unappreciated inspired me to seek employment elsewhere. In that, I was not alone.

Awards can also get tricky when people try to infuse humor but they’re far from possessing the comedic ability to do so properly. Making up awards for people being sick or injured is one example of such questionable comedic opportunity.

I began writing this as I awaited my first end-of-year banquet at my new school. I had heard that there would be some type of roast or awards presentation involved, and based on past experiences, I was hesitant. Obviously – enough to write a blog post! However, the only awards distributed were to people who had earned increments of 5 years of service, acknowledgment and thanks for those who were leaving (how cool is that?), and for our very own teacher of the year in the district. I didn’t get an award for perfect attendance, but it was okay; no one else got awards for this and that, either. Then, the “roast” that followed in the form of a “Comedy Café” left everyone in stitches. It was funny. The wonderful women who ran the presentation were funny and knew how to construct and deliver a witty remark. We shared moments from throughout the year: funny emails that had been sent, videos, interesting lost-and-found items, and so on. Instead of dividing the room into superlative winners and losers, we ended the year as a cohesive team, and our principal made sure that each and every one of us felt valued.

Of course I’m a teacher through and through, so the point to all of this is a lesson that I wish I could deliver to all schools because I want every teacher to feel like I just did at the end of the school-year. I’ve seen the difference a good awards celebration can make, and the difference a bad one can make. Just as we should always ask ourselves if what we’re doing is what is best for our students, we need to remember to take care of each other. When schools see a trend of talented people leaving in droves while the same few win awards year after year, maybe it’s time to change. Maybe the change can start with reimagining the teacher superlatives.

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