The culture of a school, family or organization is shaped by what it celebrates. Schools show that they value character traits or skills by putting them in their vision or mission statement or celebrating them in smaller ways. In classrooms, teachers give out treats for desired behaviour or an extra recess for a collective achievement. Schools also show what they value with year-end rewards. Recently, I was participating in our school’s reward ceremony and it caused me to reflect on how much we have grown in celebrating what we value.
When Rewards and Values Don’t Match
Four years ago, when I first started teaching at the middle school, we had a Head Masters List and an Honour Roll List that celebrated academic achievements based on marking percentages that had been averaged across three terms of the school year. Not only was this a horrible grading practice, since it didn’t take into account any growth the student had shown, but it also didn’t fit with the school’s goal to produce servant leaders.
In fact, our system of rewards was actually working against our stated goal to make servant leaders. As our staff began to reflect on the character of the students who were being rewarded with both of these academic lists, we discovered that these students were often very arrogant and narrowly focused on attaining grades for themselves.
I found that this individualist mindset was further enhanced in my own class by parents who gave out cash or luxurious gifts for high academic achievement. I also contributed to this way of thinking as a teacher by giving lots of individual assignments and grading with numerical scores that made class ranking a focus of my class instead of student growth.
Adjusting Success Criteria
A year later, we decided to replace our academic lists with a reward that was more aligned with our values. We called it, The Award of Excellence. It had components of leadership, service to the community, creativity and academic achievement. In the following year, the “academic achievement” part of the reward was revised to focus on academic growth–according to benchmarking at the beginning and end of the year rather than simply rewarding high achievers. In other words, we didn’t ‘t want to reward the strong students for being strong. We wanted to see growth in every student over the course of the year-regardless of their starting point.
The Culture Change
Over the past few years, it has been exciting to watch how this new award has transformed the culture of our school. Our Student Council has expanded, we have added additional leadership teams to help guide our House Team activities. Many different student-led clubs have emerged as students attempt to fulfill the leadership requirements of the award. Our students have been more active serving in their local communities and in other classes in our school. The transformation has been amazing!
Even though our school has lots of room for growth in changing its assessment culture, I’m proud of the growth we have achieved over the last four years. As we move forward, we need to keep asking ourselves, “Does our school celebrate what it values?” What we celebrate in our families, schools and organizations really does matter. It is a huge factor that shapes what they become.