An Open Letter to the Bammy Awards

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:
Justin bammy endorsement

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. —

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:

Bammy Finalists by Twitter Followers

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:

  1. Anyone could nominate anyone
  2. Anyone on the internet could vote for the nominees
  3. The moderately well-known people on the Council of Peers narrowed down the most popular nominees into shortlists
  4. 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.

Justin Baeder
Director, The Principal Center

Added 2013-09-28:

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.

I hope you’ll consider supplementing the glitz and glam with substantive stories of exemplary practice that we can all learn from and be inspired by.
Added 4pm:

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.

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  1. Echo chamber at its best

  2. Dave Tchozewski says:

    I have similar feelings about another award that given by the same group.

    The Academy of Education Arts and Sciences recognized educators in certain fields with the Educator’s Voice Honoree Award ( The process of voting for these lesser known educators was the same as the high profile people you write about. Shameless self-promotion to get people to create an account on the Bammy site and then “cast” a vote for someone who has been nominated. Again, a popularity contest. But, you only “won” if you could get your followers to jump through the hoops to cast the vote.

    While it is nice to be recognized with an award from any group, this will recognition fell flat. I won’t go into detail. Let’s just say that printing out the emailed certificate on my own printer did not elevate the importance of the honor.

    I think that the Bammy’s have a start to recognizing educators but they have a long way to go to make it a true educator recognition. It seems that it was more about the red carpet experience than it was about the recognition.

  3. Brian Crosby says:

    In general I agree with your post – but note as well it is also a very regional awards ceremony weighted very heavily east … just saying.

  4. Errol St. Clair Smith says:

    An Open Letter to the Open Letter to the Bammy Awards

    On Wednesday I had a meeting with a group of very experienced and influential educators to debrief on the Bammy Awards. They were extremely busy people, so I deeply appreciated that they took the time to come together and discuss their experience at the Bammy Awards. Since they were physically there, their feedback was particularly relevant.

    As the meeting began, I saw the standard Oreo-cookie formula unfolding: Start with the positive, give ‘em the negative, close with the positive. As we shifted from the initial “positive” stage to the white of the cookie, I could feel the leader of the group struggling to be tactful and diplomatic. I felt badly about cutting her off mid-sentence, but thought I could ultimately make the experience less painful for all by reminding her that I’m a recovering New Yorker, with genetically adapted thick skin who prefers his criticism straight, no chaser. You could literally hear the tension dissipate as she expressed great relief at being freed to just speak candidly — and for exactly one hour we did.

    We covered some of the same issues we’ve been talking about online this week and I left with an invaluable list of things to work on to make next year’s Bammy Awards better. I thanked them profusely, followed with a thank you note and I thank them again now for their feedback. But what was most noteworthy about the meeting is that it was set up by *them* not me. This was how they chose to deliver feedback.

    As I’ve spent this week responding to feedback, reviewing lessons learned and reflecting on all that has transpired, one pivotal question has surfaced: is social media an ideal vehicle for giving “constructive feedback?” Presumably most teachers would agree that it would be bad practice, perhaps even malpractice, to bring a student up in front of the entire school assembly to discuss where and how that student failed at a project. Most teachers, managers, trainers, parents, coaches and people committed to help others grow and improve embrace Vince Lombardi’s axiom, “praise in public, criticize in private.” This of course primarily applies to scenarios in which the intent is to be constructive. If the intent is to be destructive, then certainly the public spectacle wins hands down.

    As we all know, being evaluated sits somewhere on the pleasure scale between a root canal and a colonoscopy. Being publicly evaluated heightens the experience. Perhaps this is why there was such an uproar when the LA Times decided to publish local teacher evaluations “to help” teachers and the community improve education.

    Most people can tell the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism and most people also know that there are few things more cliché than destructive intent being labeled as “constructive criticism.”

    The fact that Wednesday’s group of educators (all of whom have access to Twitter) chose to share their feedback with me directly and offline communicated to me unequivocally that they were committed to be constructive and wanted to help. In the New York neighborhood where I was raised, we would call them “stand-up guys.” They are a classy, caring group and I thank them again.

    That said, let’s be clear: we are very interested in constructive feedback, no matter how harsh or stinging, painful or deflating, public or private. It’s the only way we can continually improve, so we park the ego and lean into it. However, we all know that there are those who simply don’t like awards, don’t like the Bammys, and don’t want the Bammy Awards to exist. There are also those who are basically okay with the Bammy Awards, but have a very different vision for how it should be executed, and there are hundreds of flavors in that box. So when I look at a post, the first question I ask is, what is the real intent?

    I have little confidence that exchanging blog posts with those who see awards as the great Satan will be moved by any thoughts I might share, so I continue to watch those discussions from the bleachers.

    In the case of this most recent “open letter” to the Bammys, I must tell you that I’m scratching my head. Justin, you and I have collaborated in the past, and we know how to reach each other. Certainly all concerns expressed here could have been taken up with us directly. The posting of another “open letter” was an interesting choice.

    We’ve all seen the open letter used over time with constructive intent. However, the aim is typically to apply social pressure to recalcitrant individuals, groups, organizations, companies, institutions, etc.

    The pivotal word here is “recalcitrant.” Not sure we qualify as recalcitrant people unless we count being committed to continue to honor educators across the community in creative and spirited ways. I apologize for my long-winded preface. With that, let’s look at a few of your points.

    Most of the issues you raised have already been addressed, so I won’t rehash them. I think the point that really demands examination is the challenge to the “process.” What strikes me about the challenge is the assumption that *any* selection process is without flaws or biases. As you well know, popularity, name recognition, and money are how we select people for the highest offices in our nation. Yes, the Bammy Awards process is almost certainly imperfect. Fortunately, the stakes are a lot lower than selecting a senator or a president. That said, the notion that the selection process is simply about popularity just doesn’t add up. BTW…thanks for doing the math to make the point. Let’s just look at a few of the categories you laid out.

    Middle school teacher: There are two highly connected educators in that category with 13,000 and 15,000 followers respectively. The Bammy Award did not go to either of them. It went to Megan Monsen. Perhaps you have heard of Megan Monsen before. I had not and would be surprised if many people have. In fact, Megan was self-nominated and apparently was advanced by two separate Academy panels who voted because of the pretty impressive ways that Megan is making a difference, which are documented here:

    Substance: 1 Popularity: 0

    The elementary school teacher category is another interesting place to check in.
    There were some amazing connected educators in this category including the author of the original open letter to the Bammys, Pernille, who has 11, 000 followers, and Erin Klien with 27,000. The Bammy Award went to Traci Blazosky, whom I couldn’t even find on Twitter, but is very involved across the education community as documented here:

    Substance: 2 Popularity: 0

    Finally, only one educator took home two Bammy Awards last Saturday. That was Jesse Hagopian, a teacher. He had a grand total of 700 Twitter followers, which is anemic by Twitter rock-star standards. Suggesting that Jesse’s 700 is the cause for his selection, while ignoring the well-documented ways in which he is making a difference, is a disservice to him. Indeed, he was also in Washington last week to testify before Congress. Pretty safe to say he was not invited to Capitol Hill because he has 700 Twitter followers. Jesse is an extraordinary educator, doing extraordinary work. (Google him.)

    Substance: 3 Popularity: 0

    I must tell you that I have been both surprised and pleased to see how well the system works. Though there is certainly the potential for connected educators to skew the results, the fact that the board of governors cast the deciding votes seems to neutralize that bias. The board of governors is not interested in popularity contests. They are committed to identifying people who are truly making a difference.

    Are there cases where popularity has likely swayed the vote? Did Hilary Clinton win a Senate seat in New York in part because of name recognition? Let’s keep it real… of course. But to suggest that the Bammy Awards is just a popularity contest rigged in favor of connected educators doesn’t pass the smell test. Indeed, many of the most popular connected educators with the highest number of followers are not even among the finalists. Moreover, to sweepingly make this claim dishonors and trivializes both the tangible work being done by the honorees who were selected and the time taken by the dedicated educators and advocates on the board of governors who cast their votes.

    But at some level, this whole discussion grossly misses the point. The aim of the Bammy Awards transcends the individual Bammy Award recipients. The main thrust of the Bammy Awarsd is around the getting together to celebrate the collective work being done across the entire field. It’s about celebrating the inherent interdependence we all have on each other. It’s about acknowledging all of the things that are right in American education.

    I understand and accept that there are many other ways to honor educators, and I support any program that is making a positive contribution. If the Bammys are not for you, that’s fine; don’t participate, resign from the council of peers and support the programs that resonate with you. You are free to walk around the airplane.

    However, here is the elephant in the room on the “open letter.” While some are using social media to flip the model, focusing on criticizing in public, every single day we are receiving dozens of heartfelt emails from educators at all levels of the education community who deeply appreciate the Bammy Awards, who loved the event and many who even loved the now controversial humor. The photos taken at the Bammy awards have now been shared by over 25,000 people in the last two days since they were posted. Many of these wonderfully supportive educators have told us that they are heartbroken and deeply disappointed about the discussion that has transpired on line. Do their views count too?

    Why have we not heard from many of them you might ask? Like Wednesday’s educators they are not inclined to jump into the spectacle of rancorous public debate. For them “praise in public, criticize in private” is still a worthy principle by which to live, social media notwithstanding.

    These days the vocal few often dominate the public impression of where any community stands. We are grateful to the people who are contacting us every single day to offset that perception and encourage us to persist, and so we will.

    The notion that celebrating educators has to be either this way or that way is a false choice. Accepting this way AND that way AND maybe a few others is the path to reconciliation.

    Finally, this has been an interesting week to say the least. As important as these discussions are, I’m acutely aware that time spent laying down pixels is time *not* spent actually “doing” some of the important work that truly makes a difference in education. While we have been counting Twitter followers and itemizing faux pas, there are some who have actually spent this week doing work that was really meaningful and productive. I’m jealous. Time to go back to work!

  5. eduleadership says:

    Thanks for your reply, Errol – I have updated my post above:

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