— Gary Stager, Ph.D. (@garystager) April 10, 2013
Dear Bammy Awards,
As Pernille Ripp asked, where did things go wrong?
I was an early supporter of the Bammys—in fact, you still have my endorsement on the website:
Some participants pointed out flaws in the logistics of the event, such as seating all the winners at the front of the room—ruining the surprise.
Others were disappointed that three awards for classroom teachers were not presented live, despite the fact that the nominees were invited to attend in person—at their own expense.
And most were appalled at the disrespectful comments made about Finland, and about parents and students, in a misguided attempt to celebrate American educators.
I’m sure it’s a huge ordeal to pull off an event as grand as the Bammy Awards, so I can chalk up some of these snafus, like the seating, to the learning curve. They’ll be fixed next year, and Errol St. Clair Smith has done a tremendous job of taking public responsibility for everything.
But what bothers me about the Bammys is more fundamental. You see, the Bammys are supposed to honor outstanding educators.
They aren’t fame awards or social media awards or anything of the sort; in fact, the website says:
The Awards aim to recognize the collaborative nature of education…to raise the profile and voices of the many undervalued and unrecognized people who are making a difference in the field.
These are all great goals. I embrace them, and I was pleased to be asked to serve on the Council of Peers.
But I knew something was wrong with the selection process when I saw the list of winners.
It’s not that they’re not great people—I’m sure they all are, and I know for a fact that many of them are.
And that’s the problem: I know too many of these people. They are my friends and colleagues. I’ve interviewed them, and they’ve interviewed me. We’ve been on each other’s podcasts. They are connected educators.
Why is that a problem? Because it immediately signals that fame played a role in the selection process, despite whatever measures were put in place to cast a wide net and make fair decisions.
Most famous people in our small world of education are pretty awesome. But that doesn’t mean that all the awesome people are famous, or even that the most awesome people are famous.
Any process that is intended to recognize excellence, but is skewed toward those who also happen to be well-known, falls far short of the Bammy Awards’ goals. It’s ironic, really, because:
The Awards aim to recognize the collaborative nature of education, to encourage respect in and across the various domains, to raise the profile and voices of the many undervalued and unrecognized people who are making a difference in the field and to elevate educators, education and the value of life-long learning in the public eye. —BammyAwards.com
If you’re so concerned with the undervalued and unrecognized people who are doing our profession proud, why are you so aggressively honoring the well-connected?
Or to ask a different question, if you want to honor connected educators, as the US Department of Education is doing in October, why not make the Bammy Awards explicitly about connectedness?
I understand why the Board of Governors is full of luminaries: You want the Awards to be respected, and you want them to be noticed.
That’s also why the Council of Peers consists mainly of journalists, bloggers, and social media all-stars: You wanted to get the word out.
That plan is smart and savvy, but it shouldn’t have distorted the selection process. And oh, how it did.
Now, all the people I know on the nominee list are truly great. Fabulous people, and many of them good friends of mine.
But what about all the people who aren’t well-known online? Don’t tell me none of them applied. Don’t tell me they weren’t nominated.
Plenty of non-famous people were nominated. They just didn’t have nearly as great a chance of winning.
Here’s an annotated list of the 2013 finalists:
If you’re an educator on Twitter, you know some of those follower counts are huge.
Why did this happen? I’ll tell you why: The internet got a vote. We, the edu-blog-o-sphere, got a vote, and this ruined the process.
You, The Bammy Awards, actively promoted this distortion with your rather nauseating list of suggestions on how to promote yourself and increase your chances of winning.
Why, if this award is about educational excellence, would internet voting count for anything at all?
Are we supposed to know how good a job each of the nominees does on a day-to-day basis? Are we supposed to have visited their schools and talked to families and staff? Or are we really voting based on how much we like their blog or Twitter stream? Or how much we enjoy hanging out with them at conferences?
Despite all the appearances of an Oscar-like process, the selection process went something like this:
- Anyone could nominate anyone
- Anyone on the internet could vote for the nominees
- The moderately well-known people on the Council of Peers narrowed down the most popular nominees into shortlists
- The Board of Governors narrowed down the shortlists and made the final selections
This amounts to, as Gary Stager said in the rather biting tweet I quoted above, a rather junior-high-ish popularity contest, because it begins with, and filters by, popularity.
Not that you’re trying to hide this. As the Bammy Awards website says, “The first round of screening for all nominees is essentially a measure of public influence and popularity within the education community.”
This is self-serving at best: You’re giving awards to famous people to help your awards become more famous. While this may be clever, it undermines the very purpose of the Awards.
So here’s my challenge: If you want to improve the standing of the education profession and recognize outstanding educators, take fame out of the equation. Take the names off of the applications when they’re being reviewed. Don’t empower everyone on the internet to vote.
And take more responsibility for ensuring that the process reflects actual criteria for excellence, not just name recognition.
And then, maybe then, the Bammy Awards can make a difference.
Director, The Principal Center
How to Recognize People and Elevate the Profession
You noted that many people seemed uncomfortable with being recognized in such a glamorous and public way last year, and that people seem to have warmed to the idea at this year’s Bammys.
I think this discomfort is warranted to the extent that people realize they are being honored on behalf of their profession, not because they are the absolute best on some objective scale.
If the purpose is to elevate the profession and draw attention to exemplary practice, you have to do one critical thing that you didn’t do at the Bammys: Let people tell their story. Let them explain what matters to them, so we know why they are exemplary and what we can learn from them.
ASCD’s Outstanding Young Educator Award (OYEA) is a great example of this. You get an award, sure, but the real honor is having your story told, so people know what you did and how they can learn from it. There’s a mini-documentary made, and you give a brief but substantive keynote when you win OYEA.
Apparently people were given a tweet-length template to use for their acceptance “speeches” at this year’s Bammys. You can’t tell your story in two sentences, and no one can learn from you when no details about your school or your practice are provided.
On the Obligations of Making a Big Deal
Errol, thanks for your response. I can’t imagine how many words you have written this week, and I admire the lengths to which you have gone on behalf of the awards.
I’m afraid I may have been unclear on this point: I’m not arguing that in each category, the winner was determined by Twitter fame. Instead, I’m arguing—as your own website clearly states—the initial filtering is done largely on the basis of popularity.
Jesse Hagopian may not have an unusual number of Twitter followers, and it’s great to see that he won not one but two awards. I am well aware of his work at Garfield High School, and followed the MAP protest closely (I was a teacher and principal in Seattle Public Schools for 10 years, and while Jesse and I have never met, I’m very familiar with the story). I don’t think anyone could say he didn’t deserve to win, but you can’t argue that he’s not well-known. He’s probably, nationally speaking, the best-known teacher in the entire state of Washington, because of his activism.
I say all this to raise the question of what the awards are for. If the awards are for having an impact on the profession through advocacy, blogging, journalism, or some other type of work where publicity is relevant, that’s totally fine. (Either way, Jesse certainly deserves his awards.)
But if they’re for doing a good job at your job—the unsung, daily work your website raves so much about—then this selection process needs a major overhaul. You’re not even giving your Council of Peers or Board of Governors enough information to make a decision; if someone with tens of thousands of Twitter followers can tap a huge network for endorsements—and if in fact you encourage this sort of thing—chances are good that person is going to win, simply because their entry has far more information on which to base a decision.
This may seem like a small distinction to you, but it’s not. It’s huge, because you wasted the time of thousands of people who filled out nominations and cast votes that were never going to make a difference. And that raises the issue of trust, which is actually a much bigger issue.
You’ve acted as if you’re doing the profession a favor, and as if a bunch of rabble-rousers like myself are giving you grief publicly, instead of sharing feedback privately and respectfully. Well, this was a public event, and its failures were public.
Did you do the profession a favor by holding the Bammys? I think the jury is still out on that one. Certainly the teachers who invited their school communities to watch the ceremony, then were mortified as the entertainment and comments slammed families, students, and Finland, didn’t seem to think so.
The logistical challenges seem completely forgivable, and I can understand wanting private feedback on those matters, since it’s not relevant to the public anyway.
But the larger messages that this event sends are intensely public, and from what I can tell, the impact wasn’t unambiguously a net positive. I know this is probably very painful, because your team has worked so hard for so many months to make this event a success. You took a huge risk, and I commend you for that.
But I also want you to understand that you weren’t the only one taking a risk. Everyone who endorsed this event took on a risk—a risk that it would be an embarrassment, and that it would harm the standing of education in the public eye.
Understand, I’m not opposed to the Bammys in principle. I think the stated intentions are great. But the actual nomination process does not accomplish those aims, and that’s why I’m crying foul publicly. And if other people have qualms about the messages that were sent or the way things were done, it’s fully appropriate for that criticism to be public, because the event and its impact were intensely public, by design.
BAM is a media organization, and the Bammys were a media event, publicized largely through blogs, journalists, and social media. The attention the Bammys got from these sources, as well as the endorsements from various personalities, were a tremendous asset to the Awards.
You can’t ask for and receive tons of free publicity, then complain when you’re held accountable in that same venue. More to the point, you can’t publicly embarrass teachers or the teaching profession, then expect all the criticism to come in privately.
Having said all that, I don’t intend any of this to be acrimonious or personal. By all accounts, everyone has done an admirable job throughout this whole thing, especially you.
The criticism comes because you’re holding a great deal of power, power that other people gave to you at great risk to their own reputations (ask Gail Connelly how she feels about the remarks that were made about students from your stage).
Unfortunately, you don’t get any credit for trying or working hard. When you’re working with borrowed capital, you only get credit for getting it right.
I think that’s possible next year, and I hope the feedback you’ve received is helpful, even if it doesn’t feel so great now.