Personal Archaeology 5: Confessions of an Achievement Junkie

The President’s Education Award I received upon completing my senior year of high school.  I have two others–from elementary school and junior high–that are signed by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Among the piles of personal ephemera that I’ve found in my office are awards.  Many, many awards from elementary school, junior high, and high school.  A few are sports-related, but most are certificates for participation in service events, citizenship and service awards, and academic honors.  They’re all going the way of the trash heap and the recycling pile after I take photos of them and scan them (which is what I’ve been doing to these artifacts as a way of “preserving them” without having them take up so much space in my house), and as I have scanned them, I realized that I probably have enough material for at least three blog posts.  The citizenship and service, and the sports awards will come at a later date; I’m going to write about the academic ones because I’ve spent the last few weeks doing some occasional lesson planning and going to professional development sessions where we talk about academic standards and achievement gaps.

Besides, the idea of how to recognize academic achievement and whether or not rewards for good grades are actually hurting students more than they are helping them is something I’ve been thinking about and talking about (both on and offline) for my entire teaching career.  Even the concept of grades has been up for debate among edu-pundits and other “Thought Leaders” (a phrase I hate with a fiery passion).  Back in 2011, I read a blog post called “How Important are Grades to You?” by Marcella Purnama wherein she challenges the notion that knowledge and good grades go hand in hand and criticizes the fact that we have become obsessed with the evaluation part of education and therefore have lost the plot.

She even goes as far as to quote a 2010 valedictory speech by Erica Goldson, who challenged the notion of schooling, comparing it to slavery:

I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it.

It’s one of those speeches that shocks the audience and gets a fair amount of press and attention but then gets forgotten pretty quickly until the next one comes along.  There actually have been some others since, and better ones that do not have the misguided comparison to slavery.

And it’s not like there aren’t some good points in there.  I’ve seen a shift toward nurturing students’ interests in the arts and more creative endeavors in recent years in a way that I didn’t when I was in high school (or even when I started teaching it), even tough there’s still a big segment of the population that looks at a kid’s interest in art or music and asks, “How are you going to make money with that?”  And yes, the emphasis on grades by teachers and points grubbing by students is alive and well, even in 2019 (I know this from experience).  Still, the “I was a good slave, you’re all slaves, death to the system!” rallying cry was eyeroll-inducing nine years ago and is eyeroll-inducing to me as a cynical 42-year-old in 2019.

In the years since, as I’ve looked at my own grading practices, I’ve come to wonder if my cynical response to those sentiments is because I played that game from the time I was in elementary school all the way up until the end of my academic career–and played it well, I might add.  Among some of my honor roll certificates and junior high and high school academic awards are three President’s Academic Achievement Awards that were awarded by three separate presidential administrations (Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton) for having some of the highest grades among my peers (my son has one from elementary school that is unfortunately signed by the worm that currently occupies the oval office).  Back when I got the awards, I was proud of them.  In fact, I framed the President’s Academic Achievement Awards and hung them on my bedroom wall, and I was proud of those because I knew that I had worked for them.

The “Social Studies” award I was given on senior awards night in high school. It was one of five awards I earned that evening, which ranged from academic achievement and recognition to service and citizenship.

I still remember the adrenaline rush that I got when awards were given out in school.  That sounds completely obnoxious, but I was not a varsity athlete who had the chance to regularly try his hand at winning.  I was a smart kid whose winning came through getting the highest grade on the test or writing the best paper or doing the best project.  I don’t remember if I ever acted like an asshole to my classmates about the quality of my work versus theirs (and if I do, I’m sorry–I was a bit of a dipshit back then), but my internal sense of competition back then was very strong and when those award ceremonies came around, you’d bet your ass I wanted to hear my name called.

The problem became, though, that I never knew how to let go of that feeling.  Last year, I read a blog post called “Smart Kids Eventually Grow Up” (and thanks to the friend who shared it with me), which deals with this exact issue.  The author, Valerie Valdes, gets right to the heart of the matter by saying:

It can be extremely difficult for smart kids to decouple their sense of self-worth from external validation. Especially praise for supposedly innate qualities instead of hard work. You grow up hearing how smart you are from parents and relatives and teachers and other authority figures whose opinions you’re pretty sure matter. They’re in charge, after all!

But praise is a fleeting high, and when you get too much of it too early, it takes more and more to get your emotional fix. And the older you get, the less praise you probably get, because frankly fewer people give a shit, and just being smart only gets you so far.

There were times when I definitely coasted on my smarts and there were times where I worked harder for a B than I did for an A (I see you, AP Calculus), but this idea of needing to please and have the paperwork to show for it was incredibly important to me.  And at the moment, I didn’t know that being the person who is given the perfect attendance award in high school doesn’t mean that you’re set for life (I know someone who was awarded the perfect attendance award in high school and then wound up flunking out of college because he never went to class), and classmates of mine who spent a significant amount of high school “in absentia” now have successful careers.

It took me a while to get over myself in this regard and to not look down on someone else because they weren’t filing away a pile of certificates.  And I try not to be snarky when my students win awards because I don’t know how helpful telling a proud 18-year-old (or even my proud 12-year-old) “You know, this won’t matter in ten or twenty years” is.  I mean, I probably should say that because if I don’t, I’m creating more grade monkeys like myself, but why piss on someone’s feeling of accomplishment?

I’m going to end here with two pieces of irony.  The first is that the last award of this nature I remember receiving was the “New Teacher of the Year” from the first high school where I taught and that award got lost at some point.  The second is that the two academic achievements I’ve been most proud of as an adult were my getting my Master’s while also teaching full time, and bouncing back from a terrible first semester of college to graduate with a 3.3 overall GPA.  Neither of those came with an award certificate or any special distinction on my degree.  And yes, there was a sense of accomplishment because of the grades, but I was more proud of what I was able to do and how I worked hard to do it rather than receiving any piece of paper.

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