Meet the principal : Sample Story

The Cupcake Committee

It became a very heated discussion in the faculty room!

Both sides felt passionate about the subject on very different grounds. Each side had valid reasons for their beliefs. In one camp it was all about the cognitive domain, student academic learning, and how we already didn’t have enough time in the day to cover what we needed to teach. The other camp was all about the affective domain, and the need to create a positive environment in the classroom where students felt accepted and safe. I had no idea that bringing up the subject of celebrating student birthdays in class would bring out such intense emotions.

I broached the subject at our faculty meeting because the district was looking at how to maximize student-learning time. The Superintendent had asked all the principals if our students were getting the most out of their educational day, and were there procedures we could adjust or change that would add to our instructional time? I knew there would be strong feelings on both sides as we started our discussion about the wishes of the district. I brought up the subject of celebrating student birthdays with cupcakes at school. Gina was the first one to speak. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “We already have so much emphasis placed on testing and grades. These kids have too much pressure put on them. This is one area that makes students feel special and good about themselves. We can’t give that up.” “But do you realize how much time it takes away from instruction when you add it all up?” asked Wes, a Special Day Class teacher. “If you have 25 students in your class, and it takes about 15 minutes for each celebration, which doesn’t seem like much time, but 15 minutes times 25 students is 6 hours and 15 minutes. That’s a whole day of instructional time lost.”

Hands shot up all over the faculty room from teachers and support staff eager to speak. Sidebars of conversations took place at each table. Feelings were very strong on both sides as the discussion continued. “Well, if you think about instruction it’s the perfect opportunity to teach the social skills of politeness,” remarked Paula, a first grade teacher. “We need to enforce what is or should be taught at home. At the parties we teach the kids how to wait for their turn, how to say please and thank you—there are great lessons learned so instruction is going on.” “Yeah, but I don’t see those skills in our state standards.” Francie, a fourth grade teacher retorted. “We need to be teaching curriculum, you know: math, writing, reading, science, social studies—we don’t have enough time to fit everything in as it is. I don’t allow treats for birthdays in my class. We put a party hat on the kid’s head, sing happy birthday and that’s it. My kids are fine with that.” “Another thing we haven’t mentioned is that in some religions they don’t celebrate birthdays. What about those kids? We can’t ask them to leave the room while the birthday celebration is going on, and you know how uncomfortable it is for them to sit there and not participate.”

I just listened as the discussion continued. Good points were being brought up on both sides. I knew how I felt but I wasn’t going to interject my opinion at this time. “What about the parents? What will they think about not being able to bring in cupcakes on their kid’s birthday? I don’t think they will be very happy.” “Actually, some may be relieved. Some of our moms bake pretty elaborate cupcakes! I remember when Mrs. Farnsworth brought her cupcakes in on a cookie sheet, she confessed to me that she took them out of the Safeway box because she was too embarrassed for others to know she bought them at the grocery store.” “Well, maybe it’s better for kids with allergies to have them come from the store rather than baked at home where there may be things like nuts and eggs used in the home kitchen.”

Whew, I didn’t anticipate this big of a discussion but good points continued to emerge. Where would we go from here? We decided to form a committee to do some research, talk more to staff and discuss the topic with parents. Maybe check with other schools to see what they do. Teachers from both sides of the issue volunteered to participate. So that was the inception of what we lovingly referred to as the “Cupcake Wars.”

The Cupcake Committee took its work very seriously and after many focus group meetings, surveys and one on one conversations they finally came to a conclusion that covered both the cognitive and affective domains and seemed to be a win for all. It was decided we would celebrate student birthdays with a birthday hat and a birthday song. It would take no more than one to two minutes and no food would be involved. Our birthday celebrants would have a memorable day and receive special attention on their birthday, but we wouldn’t be losing an entire day of instruction eating cupcakes.

Through this exchange of teamwork and compromise we were confident we produced a wonderful balance between celebration and academics, and the cognitive and affective domains.  An exception was made for kindergarten!