Yesterday I participated in an end of the quarter awards assembly at my school. I have always felt torn about awards because of the feelings of those who do not receive them, and we all know when there are winners, there are losers. At my school we balance academics, attendance, citizenship when we award students. Many of my students deserve the celebration, but what happens to the children we continually do not recognize? Yesterday’s awards had an added twist, they awarded classrooms for highest average attendance, GPA and behavior with a class flag, and announced them in third, second and first place. As soon as this was announced, I got a sinking feeling. I traditionally have a challenging set of homeroom students, all of the grade level’s special education students are in my homeroom, many students with behavior struggles, a student with a chronic attendance issue that is less about him and more about his home situation, and handful of struggling students, but those things feel like an excuse too. Yet, my students have made SO many gains this year. They improved their attendance by 2% points over the first quarter, have more students on track academically, and have been working extremely hard through class meetings to solve their interpersonal problems and grow as citizens. Yet, even in their growth, I knew they would not rank in the top. I saw the slumped shoulders and the sad faces and those around them cheered and received awards and it made me wonder, how resilient are they? How resilient should we expect them to be at nine years old? Aren’t they more than the data?
Of course, anyone you ask who interacts with kids says, without question, they are more than data, but this is what we celebrate about them. I work in a place that has data driven in it’s mission statement, I work in a district that lives in data, so how can I expect anything else? I also know that those data points matter. Kids that are present learn more, kids that have their behavior together can learn more, and students who are studying and completing work, tend to do better and earn better grades. I want my students to be present, have positive behavior and do well academically. But there is more to students than those three things. There is more to their education than academics. There are relationships, collaboration, learning from mistakes, having empathy, perseverance, and hard work.
I knew the class meeting was the place to bring this conversation. My homeroom starts every day with a class meeting. We have a simple but powerful format. We start with compliments for others. This is a chance for them to recognize the bright spots in each other. Over the last twelve weeks, there has not been a student in my class who has not received a compliment from another. They range from simple statements of someone picked up my folder when dropped to something powerful like inviting another to join a game or breakfast table and showing inclusiveness. They are sincere, they are mindful and they are proud of themselves and each other. They also solve problems in the meeting. These also range from a cut in the line to bullying to distracting from learning because of behavior choices. They are using language to express how they feel, giving suggestions to others on how to solve problems, tell the others what they need to move forward and then show bravery in apologizing and healing relationships. It is the most powerful part of my day, and likely theirs. The skills they are gaining in these meeting can not be measure in any data point collected at my school. Yet, they are happier, more collaborative, and empowered problem solvers. I had my students reflect on meetings recently and they consistently said it made them feel safe, included, helpful and valued by their peers.
When I started the meeting today they said all the things I expected: proud of those who received awards, frustrated they did not, sad when they have been working so hard and were not recognized, but still hopeful to win in the future. I agreed with all the emotions and explained as I did above that those awards are recognition of important aspects of school success, but there is more to them and more to school than those three pieces. I asked them what they thought our class was the best at in the first quarter. I have never cried in front of students, but I did today. They said they were the best at teamwork, supporting others, including others, being themselves, sharing compliments with others and solving problems. And they were right about each of those things.
I told them I agreed and that instead of feeling sad or frustrated it was time to problem solve. What did they want to do to create change in the way they felt and most likely a lot of others felt after that awards ceremony? They had ideas like have each class give themselves an award for what they have been the best at, just as they did. They also said to find a way to celebrate what is special about each student. I invited my administrators to our meeting Monday so my students can advocate for themselves. They need to speak with them about how they felt, what they think is valuable, and how they want to celebrate more than just the data points.
After the discussion I told my students that I originally had submitted all their names for citizenship because I had seen positive citizenship from all of them during the first quarter, some more than others, but growth by all. I explained to them that I felt pressure to not do that because I was worried that someone would question me and say something about a student who had been suspended, or about a negative interaction and I changed at the last minute to not include some of my students who had received an administrative consequence in the first quarter. I told them I realized I should have given them to all of them because I believe they all were working hard at aspects of citizenship. They agreed and I called the first student’s name to receive the award and all of the kids clapped for him and all the others I gave a late award to at the meeting. Those seven students wore their medals with such pride and smiled for the rest of the meeting. It may have been the first time they had ever been recognized or celebrated.
Sometimes when we see our kids as only data we forget what else they are. When we expect nine year olds to be perfect in any areas, we leave little space for growth, mistakes and learning. If we create a school culture without space for learning from mistakes, problem solving, safety and belonging we are not fully educating our kids.