Paula Gosal doesn’t care about awards. Paula Gosal cares about recognition– recognition for, say, a student’s love of breakdancing, success with a YouTube side project, personal academic projection, or musical ability. Since taking over as principal of Chilliwack Middle School in British Columbia, Gosal has tried to emphasize the importance of the hobbies, interests, and extracurriculars that young students care about deeply but aren’t always encouraged to take pride in. She has also begun and pursued an anti-trophy insurgency. The central battle? What to do with the school’s end of year award ceremony, which many parents and students found unfair and/or ridiculous. Gosal’s idea for a new tradition? A massive event celebrating the achievements and abilities of each of her school’s 540 students. The parents didn’t all like it–most did, the loudest didn’t–but it worked. Kids not only got recognition, but felt recognized.
By circumstance rather than ambition, Gosal has become one of the faces of the growing anti-trophy movement, an unlikely and shaky conglomeration of anti-coddling agitators and pro-affirmation activists. Though, again, she didn’t seek it out, Gosal makes sense in this role. Talking to her, you get the distinct impression that she’s no sentimentalist. What she seems to be is a practical person who wants kids to feel good about themselves as individuals. She is unconvinced shiny plastic is gonna get the job done.
Fatherly spoke to Gosal about her decision, why traditional awards are ultimately exclusionary, and why it’s not right to compare her new model to handing out “participation trophies,” which are pretty silly.
So, you’re a principal and you walk into this situation where you’re working at a school that has a big awards ceremony and you just cut it. What made you decide to do away with it?
There’d already been talk of removing awards in other parts of Canada and British Columbia. In Alberta, they’ve taken away awards at a school. So the conversation had been going on elsewhere in our province and country and some of our teachers were really engaged in that. It was my first year and the conversation came up earlier in the year and then again in a February staff meeting. For the most part, my teachers wanted permission to do something different. We had a vote about awards. It was unanimous; all hands went up to do away with our end-of-the-year award ceremony.
Why were the teachers concerned about the awards? Did they have any specific problems or was it more just generalized dislike?
I think, generally, seeing the same families being recognized. It felt quite exclusionary to the teachers. What happened traditionally at our award ceremony was that only the students who receive the awards are invited to come with their families. Usually, it’s maybe the top ten percent of our school population that’s recognized. That leaves like 450 kids who aren’t recognized for anything.
For the athletic awards, it was decided by ability, but also the number of teams they have played on. So that already feels exclusionary. For academic awards, our teachers are really good advocates for who should win, but, oftentimes, the arguments for award winners came down to “She’s a really nice girl” or “This student doesn’t talk back.” We were factoring in all this other criteria that I don’t think that was fair.
So how did you go about creating a more inclusive celebration?
A lot of our students have different degrees of achievement at school and outside of school. Somebody who had a C-minus in math and worked really hard and achieved a B, that’s huge to them. We often don’t recognize kids who make those leaps. We tend to recognize the kids that have always maintained their high grade point average. A lot of our student population has shown progression, so we wanted to look at that, too.
We also wanted to recognize that our kids are more than what we see at school. Our kids are doing a lot of things online and are actually take control of their own learning, which is amazing for me. Some of my kids are big into YouTube or creating online games and already earning money off of the stuff they do online. But we don’t ever see that at school nor do we recognize the fantastic things they are doing outside. Some of them are great at ballet and music and taekwondo and that kind of thing. School and who are they as people tend to be very separate; we wanted to marry the two.
It seems like your strategy allows kids to focus on the thing that they want to be good at rather than having priorities thrust upon them. Are they open to that? Kids aren’t always kind to themselves, much less others.
Often time our kids feel reluctant to say they are really proud of something they did in school. The kids who don’t get academic accolades tend to say, ‘I suck at everything.’ They don’t know where they can take pride if that makes sense.
For some of my kids, they are at the age in middle school where they are looking for definition. They are kind of trying to figure out who they are. For the grade seven student who gets the great academic award, but doesn’t get it in grade eight that helps to begin their own definition that they suck or not as good as I used to be. I think we really need to be cognizant of that emotional impact of awards.
It’s very common right now to hear people throw around the phrase “participation trophies” as a means of calling younger people soft or spoiled. What do you think of that rhetoric?
It’s pretty jarring actually. Past practice has been to award the best of the best and now it looks like we aren’t doing that anymore, but we are. There are still means by which the ones who did really, really well are acknowledged. The report card is still an acknowledgement. What we are acknowledging is that everybody has a right to be acknowledged. In my job, I don’t get an award for doing a good job. My award is how I feel about it and my award is that my kids and teachers are successful. I don’t know how our past award system works out in the real world and isn’t that what we are supposed to be preparing kids for, the real world?
For me, I think the direction we’re heading is far more positive than a traditional ceremony. It allows the kids to take more pride in terms of their development and actually contribute to that more in depth. That’s different than giving out a participation ribbon.
How did the kids take to it?
They were really into it. We had them all do an “I am proud” statement and all they had to do was write out what they are proud of. Then we plastered them all over the school for all of them to see. They didn’t have to sign their name to them if they didn’t want to, but many of them did. Out of 570 students, only four “I am proud” statements were treated as a joke. Our kids really did take this task seriously and to watch them read out each other’s statements in the hallway was amazing. Some brought me to tears.
What was one of your favorite surprises from the showcase?
One of the boys who struggled throughout the school year is a fantastic break dancer. I said to him you should probably think about performing at the showcase. His eyes just lit up and he was like, ‘I can do that!’ He literally asked where to sign up. He just took a lot of pride in what he was doing outside of school. To bring that in and let the kids know that those skills are valuable makes a difference. For my kids, I think it was pretty encouraging.