March 28th, 2012

What’s Wrong with Teaching Awards


I have to admit I’ve never been a terribly big fan of teaching awards. I know, teaching isn’t rewarded and recognized as it should be, so why in the world complain about something that does honor teaching excellence? Let me explain my concerns.

First off, there’s the amount of the awards. I don’t think $2500 (and that’s more than many awards) for any number of years of outstanding teaching is much of a reward, especially when compared with the level of reward that research productivity garners. Those rewards are salary increments, not given once, but as permanent additions to the salary. Is something always better than nothing? Or can something be so small that it ends up devaluing what it’s supposed to be rewarding? We live in a culture where value is measured in monetary terms. Some basketball stars get $10,000 every time they take a shot. Most teaching award stipends don’t even keep up with increases in the cost living.

When I make this point to my colleagues, they almost always respond that the award isn’t about the money. It’s the honor, it’s knowing that one’s efforts are appreciated by the institution and by one’s students. That is a valid point, but it raises another concern: the selection criteria used to decide who gets the awards. Nancy Chism, who has completed one of the few substantive analyses of teaching awards (she looked at 144 different award programs across a range of institutions), found that 52% specified no criteria beyond teaching excellence. What does this assume? That the characteristics of teaching excellence are so obvious there is no need to name them? That conclusion reinforces the perception that good teaching is ephemeral (Chism’s term)—that we can’t define it, and we only know it when we see it. This makes it pretty hard to assist anyone who aspires to excellence.

When good teaching isn’t defined and award criteria are not specified, this leaves these awards open to various kinds of manipulation. In the early part of my career, my institution distributed a booklet picturing winners of the major teaching awards with accompanying laudatory commentary about their teaching. Thumb through that booklet and you’d think the faculty at my institution were gender balanced and racially diverse. In fact, those were the years when tenure-track female instructors filled less than 15% of the positions, and racial and ethnic minorities were in less than 5% of the tenure lines. I’m not saying the recipients didn’t deserve the awards. I’m simply proposing that the absence of criteria makes it easy to let other factors influence whose teaching gets recognized.

Chism’s analysis also revealed that when characteristics were specified, they were all about teaching performance: communication skills, organization, high standards, clear goals, enthusiasm, strategies for student engagement and an emphasis on higher order thinking skills. This focus explains why so many winners of teaching awards have these larger-than-life, charismatic teaching styles. Their teaching is performance-driven. But I wonder whether there is ever recognition for those teachers who help students learn in quieter but perhaps more enduring ways.

To improve current teaching award practices, Chism recommends specifying the criteria and then collecting evidence that supports the criteria. If excellent teachers are “organized,” what evidence documents their organization? The course syllabus? Judgments offered by students in the class? Observations by colleagues? Similarly, if excellent teachers have “high standards,” what are these standards and what illustrates their application in the classroom? Chism found that often the evidence collected isn’t relevant to the specified criteria.

Consistently excellent teaching deserves reward and recognition. I just want the rewards and recognition to appropriately acknowledge the effort that goes into teaching that regularly results in learning for a range of students, and I don’t think what is typically done now is the best we can do. There’s room for more creativity and innovation.

If your institution uses a unique approach, or if you’ve heard of one or can imagine a teaching award that you would love to win, please share it below.

Reference: Chism, N. V. N. (2006). Teaching awards: What do they award? The Journal of Higher Education, 77 (4), 589-617.