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Teaching Opinion

Make Graduation About Achievement, Not Comparison

By Angela Duckworth — June 01, 2020 2 min read
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Many schools have end-of-year award ceremonies based on tests, which some students couldn’t participate in because of the pandemic. How do we celebrate student accomplishments without making others feel forgotten?

This question brings back memories of perching uncomfortably on a rickety folding chair in the middle of a football field (or if it was raining, in the school gym) at my own end-of-school-year ceremonies.

You, too, may recall listening for your name as your school principal marched through the alphabet calling graduates and, in the good old days, welcoming you to the stage for a handshake and even a hug of congratulations.

What I don’t remember with much fondness was the portion of the program dedicated to awards. I understand why schools have them. When students achieve a standard of excellence, it’s a wonderful thing to stand and applaud. The values of a school culture are, in part, reinforced by what we honor in public.

But there’s a downside to such rituals, too. Students say that getting awards at the end of the school year brings mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is pride in being recognized for what you’ve done. On the other hand, there’s a certain cringe factor in walking down the aisle knowing that your classmates aren’t always rejoicing for your success.

A few years ago, I attended a graduation ceremony at a local high school. As I thumbed through the program, I saw a list of awards and their recipients. The list was lengthy and the awards quite specific. There was, for example, the Phi Beta Kappa Award, given to “a student who embodies the ideals of academic achievement, character, and a love of wisdom and learning,” and the Margot Cunningham Award, given to “seniors who have played three sports for four years.”

The list was long enough to make me wonder how many hours the ceremony might last. But then something unexpected happened. The graduation concluded after the seniors were called up in alphabetical order. The only pomp and circumstance around awards was the written program itself. I later learned that the school holds a separate assembly to recognize awards for students across all grades. This was by far the most dignified way I’ve seen to honor students without inadvertently diminishing their peers.

This year, every graduation ceremony has to be rethought. So turn the end-of-school-year disruption into a precedent-setting opportunity and reconsider how you honor students. Why not recognize students who are especially funny, grateful, or kind? At that ceremony I attended, the Rachel Shao Sun Award was awarded to a “senior who has exhibited academic excellence, leadership, warmth, good humor, and the ability to be a true friend.” And perhaps the class of 2020 deserves an award all its own, for handling this pandemic with grace, resilience, and optimism.

Angela Duckworth, the founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Character Lab, is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow Character Lab on Twitter @TheCharacterLab.

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The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.