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Breaking Up With End of Year Awards [episode 09]


Click below to listen to how to break up with end of year awards:

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Morning Message: 

[0:58] If you were a fictional teacher, who would you be?

Our go-to fictional teachers are Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables.

Our listeners had some great responses! Some of those include the iconic Ms. Frizzle, Miss Honey and Ms. Trunchbull from Matilda, Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, Jessica Day from New Girl, and the teacher from the Peanuts comics. We couldn’t agree more!

We’d love to hear your responses to this question and future questions, so let us know over on Instagram!

Here’s an overview of episode 9:

The end of the year brings up a lot of wonderful school traditions. Some of those traditions include field day, whole school dance festivals, and a very common one, award ceremonies. But are award ceremonies really that rewarding for students? In today’s episode, we’re showing you 5 reasons why you should break up with end of year awards, while replacing the tradition with something more meaningful.

On the surface, award ceremonies are harmless, right? They’re a time when you can recognize students for all they’ve accomplished throughout the year and provide positivity through your class. But does it really? Research shows just the opposite. Our 5 reasons we no longer need end of year awards are: they’re harmful to students, they don’t actually motivate effort or increase achievement, awards themselves often miss the mark, they often make students feel in competition with their peers, and they’re judgemental. 

Some teachers love the idea of celebrating students and their accomplishments at the end of the year, and we do too! This is why we put a spin on “traditional” awards. Instead of teachers picking out an adjective or accomplishment for each student, have the student pick their own award! This allows them to pick an award that’s unique to them and showcases what they value most or what they’re most proud of this school year. Providing students the power and choice to pick is more rewarding than any reward you could assign them. 

If our goal is for students to know they’re special, even if nobody else recognizes the thing they value most about themselves, then end of year awards aren’t the answer. Throughout the year, you learned so many things about your students, and they’ve grown so much in the year they’ve been in your class, so why would we want to diminish all they’ve accomplished to one award? Make your students know you’ve enjoyed them this year, but it’s time to break up with end of the year awards. 

In this episode on breaking up with end of year awards, we discuss:

  • 5 reasons why end of year awards are problematic
  • Author Dan Pink’s TED Talk on motivation
  • The purpose of end of year awards and if it’s actually encouraging
  • How labels, even though positive, can still put students in a box, which stifles their ability to grow and change
  • A new end of year tradition that provides students with meaning and individuality geared toward them

This week’s teacher approved tip:

[14:20] Consider doing the opposite of what you feel like doing

This is a great tip for teachers, but also anyone who isn’t in education. Some examples include: if your class is noisy and you want them to settle down, instead of yelling, whisper to your class, or if you get a parent email criticizing you and you want to get defensive, instead, ask them for suggestions or ways to help. This tip is a great reminder for the end of the year when our fuses are near the end, but for making the better choice.

What we’re giving extra credit to this week:

[15:26] Emily is giving extra credit to Quordle

[15:56] Heidi is giving extra credit to Psych Rewatch podcast, The Psychologists Are In


Read the transcript for episode 9, Breaking Up With End of Year Awards:

Hey there, thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing an end of year tradition that it might be time to break up with and sharing a teacher approved tip for handling a tough moment.

We’re starting our episodes with a morning message. Just like we used to do it morning meeting in our classrooms. This week’s morning message is if you were a fictional teacher, who would you be? Emily, who would you be?

I think my ideal teacher self would be Professor McGonagal from Harry Potter. I just love her. And she’s like at the end when she gets the stones and she’s fixed.

Yes, spoiler sorry. What about you, Heidi?

Oh, Anne of Green Gables I just always had dreams of like inspiring this genius of lifelong learning. And my darling little pupils I love Anne. And we asked our community about their fictional teacher cells, and several of you have an inner Ms. Frizzle. I love it. “Boss, do your stuff.” And Victoria said Miss Honey for Matilda. While, Heather said she’s more of a Miss Trunchbull. And we appreciate your honesty there. And yes, let’s be let’s be honest ourselves. We could probably have both in one day. It’s true. Shannon said Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World which as a TGIF lover. I definitely appreciate Mr. Feeny that’s a good answer. Ali said Jessica Day from New Girl. We love New Girl. Glitter answer. Well, you can have too much. It’s true. You can. And Sara said the teacher from the Peanuts comics, which is just very relatable. I think we’ve all felt that womp womp moment? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this question over on Instagram. You can find us at @2ndstorywindow that’s with the two.

As we get into the end of the school year, you probably have a lot of upcoming traditions that your school always does. At my school, it was the whole school dance festival. How about you, Heidi? Oh, my school always had grade level performances. And then of course, we had field day; of course field day. One of the most common end of year traditions is the end of your award ceremonies. While teachers have good intentions with them, we think it might be time to retire this tradition. Today, we’re sharing five reasons why we no longer do End of Year awards. And we’re going to share with you the meaningful tradition that we’ve replaced that with. But before we begin, we do want to acknowledge that this topic might make you a little uncomfortable. Our goal is to bring to your attention some issues with end of year awards. But we do not want you to feel guilty if you have done award ceremonies in the past or if you continue to do them in the future. You can evaluate the information we’re going to share for yourself and decide what’s best for you. And just know that we’re cheering you on to be the best teacher you can be no matter what.

To dive in, the first reason that end of year awards are problematic is that they can harm students. In recent years, there have been several stories circulating on social media about students who receive troublesome end of year awards. And we’ve even seen this close up we follow someone on Instagram, both of us ,whose little girl was given a crazy hair award in preschool years ago, and her daughter was just devastated by it. And not only that, but the criticism has stuck with her and made her feel uncomfortable with her natural textured hair. And that is just very upsetting to see.

In some of these stories, the teachers have been blatantly offensive and seemingly intentionally harmful with their word choices. But in others, the teachers seem to be generally well intentioned but misguided, they likely thought it was all in good fun. And you know how it is at the end of the year because you start looking back at the personality quirks that made each student unique, but maybe also made it difficult at times. And as the time gets closer to saying goodbye, suddenly, those challenging quirks become endearing. And some teachers likely think that highlighting them with an award is a good natured way to tease them a bit. But the intent of these awards isn’t important. The important thing is their impact. And in this case, and in so many similar cases, they harm students who deserve to be loved and protected by their teachers. Impact is more important than intent. What else can you tell us Emily?

Well, the second reason any of your words are problematic is that they don’t actually motivate effort or increase achievement. So our intent with awards hopefully, is to reward students excellence, right? Likely we want to use awards to increase achievement or as a way to celebrate successes. So do awards work for that? Do they reward success and motivate students to achieve more? Well, the research says no, it’s pretty clear that using rewards like having your name published on the Principal’s List or receiving the School Excellence Award aren’t benefiting anyone. Author Dan Pink gave a TED Talk a few years ago called The Puzzle of Motivation. In it, he points out that for 50 years, scientists have shown over and over that rewards not only don’t work, but they often do harm. He says, rewards narrow our focus and restrict our possibilities. When I’m concentrating on completing a straightforward task with a clear finish line, a reward can be really motivating. It helps me weed out distractions and puts my energy towards getting things done. But is that what we’re after with our teaching? So like the quote says, rewards narrow our focus and restrict our possibilities. The world we’re preparing our students to inhabit requires less straightline thinking and more creative problem solving. When we offer a reward for problem solving, we actually make it harder to solve the problem, because it makes it harder to find creative solutions. But we might be able to look past that if a top student award motivated students to at least make an effort. Of course, it turns out rewards don’t do that either. Everyone’s favorite contrarian Alfie Kohn says, “What studies find over and over again is the more you reward students for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in doing whatever they had to do to get the reward. The more students are motivated to get a reward, the more the depth of their thinking, their preference for challenge and the interest in learning tend to suffer.” It’s pretty clear that providing external rewards like school awards, actually decreases motivation. And this doesn’t even take into account those students who worked extremely hard, but didn’t have their effort recognized when someone else who did a similar amount of work or maybe even less did receive an award and what that might do for their motivation.

The third reason end of year awards are problematic is that awards themselves often miss the mark. Some of the common awards seem okay on the surface, but are really problematic when investigated. For example, awards for always being on time or never missing a day of school are often not achievements to be allotted when one students often have no control over whether or not they’re on time, or even present for school. And two, there are legitimate reasons that students absolutely should not be in school. Like when they’re dealing with a family emergency or suffering from an illness. Awards for completing homework, ignore the fact that a student might not be in a home situation that allows for them to complete their homework. They have no control over that. Even something like passing off multiplication facts looks very different. If you’ve got a parent at home, who is facilitating daily math practice, versus a home where parents are working multiple jobs to get by. And let’s not even get started with all the issues with giving a child an award for being the most improved in any area. It may come from a place of love. But it really is just a backhanded compliment that highlights how behind they were before. I think I would be so offended if somebody gave me a most improved award for anything. Absolutely.

The fourth reason end of year words are problematic is that they often lead students to feel they’re in competition with their peers. We spend so much time trying to make our classrooms a place where everyone matters. But then the award ceremony comes along with the unspoken message that everyone matters, but a few of you matter more than the others. If only one kid is getting the Student of the Year Award, how can the others not feel like they are being played against each other? There’s nothing in that experience that helps students recognize they are all valued individually for their unique selves. In order for students to thrive, they all need an environment that is caring and safe. Does a culture of competition and comparison lead to an environment of caring and safety? No, it doesn’t. Nobody wins when being better is more valued than working together.

And the last reason that we think that awards are problematic is because they’re judgmental. A lot of teachers feel that they don’t use awards as motivation but as celebration, and surely that’s fine, right? It’s not about winners and losers, but about honoring each of my students for their unique gifts and positive traits, like she’s working toward her dreams or he’s such a good reader. And because we’re labeling positive traits, it feels okay to stick those labels on children. But positive labels are still labels and they box students in, stifling their ability to change and grow.What if the student who is constantly being praised for her athleticism actually loves playing the clarinet too, maybe that’s the thing she loves most about herself. Yet, because of the constant praise of her athleticism, she may not feel fully able to pursue her interest as a musician. No matter how carefully you select your words, you are still assigning a label to a student, it doesn’t matter how positive that label is, you are still deciding what about them as worthy of praise, you are sending intentional and unintentional messages about what you value about them, and what they should value about themselves.

It comes down to this, nobody should get to be the judge of what makes the child feel proud, including their teacher. The best helper award winner might long to be recognized for her artistic talent, and feel like that award ignored what she treasures most about herself. And I can speak from experience on this particular example, because my darling artistic daughter in third grade received this award, and she didn’t feel like it knew her at all. The goal as a teacher shouldn’t be to do an award ceremony to make your kids feel special for a moment. Assuming you are even able to achieve that goal with a piece of paper. The goal is for students to know they’re special, even if nobody else recognizes the thing they value about themselves.

But don’t despair, an easy tweak can turn your end of your awards from a harmful ceremony to a meaningful celebration. Here’s how we have reimagined this tradition. We start by letting students choose their own awards. If the goal with our awards is to truly honor our students for their unique talents and growth, who better to be the judge of that than the students themselves. They’re the ones who know what they truly feel proud of. So here’s how we approach it. We start with a class discussion about the highs and lows of the past school year. And if your students have set goals earlier in the year, this is a great time to revisit those goals. A few meaningful prompts to guide your discussion might be: three things I learned this year, one way I improved, I worked hard to, I was kind when, I didn’t give up when, something I’m proud of. And you don’t have to worry about trying to remember those questions, because they are all in a free download we have for you in the show notes.

It’s good to discuss together some ideas for each of those questions to help the students start to think about their own answers. Then we’ll have students work on their own reflection of those questions for themselves. Next, we share some of the different awards we have available. So they know what the options are: reaching challenging goals, growing as a learner, persevering through a difficult task, having a positive attitude, showing responsibility, showing kindness, trying hard even when it’s challenging. And if none of those words represent what a student is most proud of, we make an individual award for the success that they want to celebrate. And it’s okay if more than one student has the same award because they represent something unique and personal for each child. This way students have an award that reflects an accomplishment that they truly value and are proud of, without anyone telling them what they should be proud of. And now the parents are learning about something their child genuinely feels they succeeded and they feel as meaningful. As we said before, we have a free resource for you that provides everything you need to do this meaningful reflection activity with your students. And I just want to say that we have some teachers who have done this in the past, and they’ve said that it’s just one of the most meaningful experiences to do at the end of the year, and we really hope that you’ll give it a try. The download includes a teacher’s guide, and signs you can post to facilitate your class discussion, student answer forms, and a few different styles of awards. And did we mention it’s all free? Just head to the shownotes at We feel confident that if you give this new approach a try end of year awards will take on a beautiful new meaning for you and your students.

Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is considered doing the opposite of what you feel like doing. Emily, can you explain that a little.

So like in a moment when your class is totally losing their minds and you feel like yelling at them to be quiet. Instead, try doing the opposite. Whisper to them instead. If you have a parent who’s criticizing you and you feel like getting defensive with them, understandably. instead ask them for their suggestions or ask them to help. If you are overwhelmed with your to do list after school and feel like just completely shutting down and just heading home. We’re out of here. Try finding a small tasks you can do to help you get out of the overwhelm and then go home with a clear mind. Or when you hit a wall with your kids, and you just feel like you can’t stand them anymore. Let’s be honest, we’ve all been there. Try doing something silly together or reading a book to remind yourself why you love them and love being a teacher. And that can really be a lifesaver as you get into the end of school year for sure.

To wrap up the show, we’re sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Emily, what do you give me extra credit to?

I’m giving extra credit to Quordle. So if you like Wordle, which we love, this is the same sort of puzzle game, but you’re solving four words at once with each guess. So it’s kind of tricky, but you do get some extra guesses to have enough to try and get all four. It’s kind of a brain challenge. But we really enjoy that especially if after you finish Wordle you still have an itch to do another word puzzle that day. Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to?

I’m giving extra credit to the Psych rewatch podcast the Psychologists Are In and it’s hosted by Tim Amundsen and Maggie Lawson, who were Lasseter and Juliet. If you watched Psych. And it’s just been such a fun little trip down memory lane. Psych was just such a special little golden bit of TV at the time. And I don’t know if you’ve watched the USA shows what else was there like, Suit, White Collar, I loved White Collar, Covert Affairs, Royal Pains all those Burn Notice, yes, all those. They were just such things that hold up well, and they’re just delightful to rewatch. And the rewatch podcast has just been so fun to hear all of their memories and everything that went into all of those episodes, so highly recommend it.

And I’m actually just in my rewatch of Psych. I never actually finished it the first time. So I’m actually like in season five right now. So I’ll have to start listening to the rewatch podcast getting all the fun I finding the pineapples. Sometimes. Sometimes I’m working while I’m listening and I miss it. That is a trick. That’s it for today’s episode. Consider if it’s time to break up with your end of Year awards and try our new approach. And don’t forget today’s teacher approved tip to do the opposite of what you feel in a hard moment.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.