amber teaman awards

A Terrible Thing Happened on Awards Day: Here’s What I’m Doing About It with Amber Teaman

Today Amber Teaman @8amber8 , principal, shares something that happened at her school this year relating to awards day and what she and her team are doing about it. Her transparency, openness and leadership are a great thing to motivate us today!

amber teaman awards

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Below is a transcript modified for your reading pleasure. For information on the guests and items mentioned in this show, scroll down to the bottom of this post.


Transcript for Episode 126 

A Terrible Thing Happened on Awards Day: Here’s What I’m Doing About It

Monday, August 14, 2017

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Vicki: Today we’re talking with Amber Teaman. Amber is a principal, and I have to give a shoutout to my friend Kasey Bell @ShakeUpLearning because she told me about Amber. Today for Motivational Monday, you have a fantastic very transparent story that you told about awards. Would you tell us that story?

Amber: After the end of the school year, you know, you have a couple of weeks “downtime” where you just kind of get to clean out your office and process. My teachers are gone. My kids are gone. So I just highly enjoy this time to purge and reflect, right? And I had a mom e-mail and ask if she could come meet with me to talk about just a couple of different things about her daughter.

Honestly, Vicki, I was like, “OK. Sure. I WOULD love to meet with you.” But of course my head wasn’t there. My heart wasn’t there. But of course I scheduled the meeting. She comes in, and she’s coming to talk about (and really brag on) the teacher that her daughter had had the previous year, and some things that she had done to make her feel good about herself. The student struggled a little bit, had some initial tutoring that she was doing outside of school, and really, the entire meeting was phrased to make me feel proud of my teacher — and hopefully, make sure that her daughter landed in a place in fourth grade with a teacher just as supportive, just as reassuring.

In the context of that conversation, she mentioned to me that… You know, she said, “We struggled this year. Our student celebrations are difficult. My daughter didn’t receive an award the entire year. And that got to be a struggle for our family. And her self-esteem really struggled from that.”

What Amber Did When the Realization Hit

Amber: That wasn’t the point of her conversation. That was just an aside that she mentioned. I had to pause, and I had to ask her, “OK. Wait. What? She didn’t receive an award? The whole year?”

And she said, “No. In fact she actually asked me not to come the last day of awards because she was so embarrassed and so ashamed that she knew she wasn’t going to get to walk up to the front of the cafeteria. She just would rather have not had me there.”

And oh my gosh, I mean, my eyes filled up with tears. I just had to close my notebook, where I was trying to take diligent notes, like a good principal. And I had to apologize to this mama that I had allowed her daughter to have struggled, who had had – ultimately, a very successful year – and that we had just failed to recognize her for anything the entire school year. And it just broke my mama heart. It broke my principal heart. It was a very humbling moment for me.

What were they celebrating at Awards Day?

Vicki: So give us some context. What kinds of things are you recognizing at student celebrations?

Amber: Well, my first year when I came in, I’d just left Chris Wejr, who has written about the impact of awards and how very dangerous they can be. Anyway, so when I came in, I had asked that we change the words from “student awards” to “student celebrations”. So I’m just trying to reframe the context for my people – of what it looks like, of what it could be about, ____ and that kind of thing. So this was last year’s awards.

So we have kind of “saved out” a lot of the awards and we’re trying to focus them more on our character development program. Here at Wiley, we call it the “Wiley Way” and every nine weeks, we focus on some particular character traits like “Have Respect and Responsibility” in celebration.

So third grade – they do A and B Honor Roll, A Honor Roll, a program like an extra math program looking at automaticity in math facts. And that’s really all that they do, and then they’ll do some character awards. In their classrooms. So on one hand, I was so proud of myself because I’ve gotten rid of gratuitous social studies awards, or gratuitous reading awards, that it was just levels of achievement. But I still managed to miss that that still isn’t celebrating everyone.

Vicki: Of course there’s a pushback that – you know, it’s obvious that this child had tenacity. This child had persistence. There’s obviously some character traits that this child has.

Amber: (agrees)

Should kids get awards when they don't deserve them?

Vicki: But you know, it’s also so harmful to lie, and give somebody and award when they don’t deserve it. I mean, how do you handle this tension here, because there’s an honest, genuine tension with this whole thing.

Amber: Absolutely, and I think that I live and breathe in this academically successful environment that my kids here THRIVE in. And honestly, our culture WANTS that. And so to personally disagree is difficult, and so what I’ve learned (in my two whole years as an experienced principal now) is that and this is bad, right? I can ask questions. And I say, “How are we celebrating each learner? How are we celebrating each student? In what ways can that student be celebrated?” We have kids who struggle. If there’s a math program that is gauging the quickness that you answer a math fact, then if you have any sort of learning disability or a processing (strength), you don’t react as quickly. And so it just doesn’t seem fair sometimes that you also don’t get an opportunity to be celebrated for those things.

But on the flip side, I am not, by all means, the queen of “everyone gets a cookie” and thinking that we should hand out shiny trophies to everyone. Bu again, going back to that mindset, you can’t tell me that that baby girl did not do something, all year long, that she didn’t deserve to be recognized.

How are they working to make sure this doesn't happen again?

Vicki: So what are you going to do differently with this?

Amber: I already have a meeting with leadership. My teachers come back in just a week and a half, and I have some time set aside for my leadership meeting. Instead, again, of coming down and trying to make it the “Amber Team and Way” and the” Amber Team and School” that reflect the way that I think. I’m just going to tell them the story. I’m going to say, “What can we do? Help me, guys. Help me, you team of leaders on my campus, you veteran and amazing hardworking teachers, who I know do not in any way or intention mean to hurt children. What can we do to help celebrate babies that don’t necessarily perform in this standardized version of what we call education?”

And I’m really hoping that we’re going to (do something). Other schools are doing it. I know that they are. I’ve reached out to Chris Wejr and we’ve kind of gone back and forth on some different things. But looking at ways to genuinely celebrate.

My kinder teams have gone away from awards completely, and they just do a portfolio-based recognition. So the parents just go to the classroom, and they get to sit down with their kid. Their kid’s folder is “I learned my FAT words, and “I counted this high,” and “I did X tasks.” It’s personalized, and they’re still some celebration there. But it’s individual.

So it may be that we move to a portfolio-based system campus wide. I don’t know if we’re ready for that. But it’s definitely a conversation that I want my teachers in. Again, this is not just a random story that I am telling from the internet. This is so-and-so’s kid, in such-and-such’s class. They GO here.

Why is Amber so transparent on this issue?

Vicki: And you know, this is an important conversation. You’re obviously moving forward to a much broader conversation by being transparent. But you know, there are a lot of principals who are listening to you thinking, “I would never admit that I screwed up.” Because, ultimately, right, “Harry Truman: The buck stops here.” Right? You’re shouldering responsibility, and that’s what’s beautiful about this story, because things happen. We can’t control everything. Is it hard for you to admit that this happened?

Amber: Oh my goodness. No. And yes. I am the queen of only making a mistake one time. I will only make the mistakes once. And in my entire first year as a principal, full of missteps and rethinks and wishing I could take situations back. I’m so lucky that I have a graceful staff who loved me through it – and had no problems telling me where I had stepped off the path. I should have rethought some things, and they were very clear in some of that feedback, which I have written about on my blog. But the end result is that I’m much better. I’m stronger. I’m stronger professionally. Our relationships are stronger personally. And that’s the only way that I know how to learn. If I didn’t have amazing people — like Kasey Bell @ShakeUpLearning, like George Couros @gcouros – people that I can call and talk to and say, “Oh my gosh. I messed this up. Help me fix it.” Or “How have you done this? Can you talk me through this?” There’s no manual with my position. There was no, “Here’s How to Be a Great Principal.” You just kind of walk in and hope that you can figure it out. I’m lucky enough to be connected to some incredible people that I can call and say, “Alright. This is what I did this week. Help me figure this out.” But I think that also endears me to my teachers – for them to see, “I’m not perfect. I don’t expect you to be perfect. I make mistakes, and I have bad days. I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a friend. I also have “down” times. I don’t expect you not have those things either.” So, hopefully, that transparency lends itself to that.

Vicki: I think your transparency is just tremendous.

I also am thinking of three “C’s”.

I think that first of all, you’re being Courageous. You are putting yourself out there, and moving the conversation forward, both at your school and broader.

You’re being Coachable. This is a hard one for principals, because you actually have this relationship with your staff where you’re learning from them. And you know there are a lot of principals out there – this would be a whole other show that I wish that I could talk about – that two-way street that really needs to be there when you’re a successful principal. Everybody telling you what to do. The buck does stop with you.

But that listening – just listening – and the Cooperative. I love it that you are not saying, “I have the answers.” What you’re saying is, “I have a great staff, and I know that we’ll figure out the answer together.”

Amber: Absolutely. And again, I do have incredible people who are supportive and who are open to me, too. I don’t come to the table without a skill set. I do have things to offer and things to share. If you are open and willing to listen and learn, then I also am willing to listen and learn. And that’s just how I want the culture on our campus to be, from kids to secretaries to teachers.

Vicki: So, remarkable teachers, this is a Motivating Monday. So get out there and apply what you’ve learned.

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Full Bio As Submitted

Amber Teaman

Amber Teamann is the proud principal of Whitt Elementary in Wylie ISD in Wylie, Texas. During her educational career, Amber’s comprehensive understanding of student learning has resulted in a successful blend of technology and teaching.

From a 4th grade teacher at a public school technology center, to her role as a Title I Technology Facilitator responsible for 17 campuses, Amber has helped students and staff navigate their digital abilities and responsibilities. She transformed the way information is shared in one of the largest school districts in Texas by piloting a communication initiative that launched Twitter, and led to 100-percent campus participation.

Through her campus level leadership, she has helped initiate classroom change district wide, empowering teachers at all levels. In addition to blogging for Connected Principals  , she is a firm believer in modeling a digital footprint. Her educational philosophy and digital portfolio can be found at Love, Learn, Lead  or on twitter, @8amber8.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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1 comment

Lyn Hilt August 14, 2017 - 8:53 pm

Loved reading this, Amber! Thanks for sharing and always being a transparent leader and learner!


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