A Worthwhile Teaching Award

Teaching award accolades
Teaching awards have many fans; I’m not among them. Nancy Chism’s analysis of 144 awards at 85 institutions (one of the few systematic reviews conducted) identifies one of the reasons teaching awards are overrated: “It is somewhat startling to observe that for a little more than half of the awards in the sample, no criteria or only a global statement associating the award with the term ‘teaching excellence’ is stated.” (p. 592) There are other issues as well. The monetary awards are modest, one-time dividends that pale alongside the years of hard work good teaching requires. The awards focus on performance and tend to favor “showy” teaching styles, faculty who can present with flourish, leaving those who promote learning in quieter ways unrecognized. And then there’s how regularly the recipient must assemble the dossier that makes the case for his or her excellence—so much for objectivity.

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]eaching awards have many fans; I’m not among them. Nancy Chism’s analysis of 144 awards at 85 institutions (one of the few systematic reviews conducted) identifies one of the reasons teaching awards are overrated: “It is somewhat startling to observe that for a little more than half of the awards in the sample, no criteria or only a global statement associating the award with the term ‘teaching excellence’ is stated.” (p. 592) There are other issues as well. The monetary awards are modest, one-time dividends that pale alongside the years of hard work good teaching requires. The awards focus on performance and tend to favor “showy” teaching styles, faculty who can present with flourish, leaving those who promote learning in quieter ways unrecognized. And then there’s how regularly the recipient must assemble the dossier that makes the case for his or her excellence—so much for objectivity.  For Those Who TeachRewards for teaching are still few and far between, so perhaps it’s shortsighted to complain about the ones we have. And they do engender many positive emotions—comments from former students can make a teacher glow. But I’m still convinced that if we want to recognize and reward exemplary instruction, we could do better, and I think the Canadian 3M National Teaching Fellowship provides an example. This unique partnership between the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE, an organization that advances teaching and learning across Canada) and the Canadian division of the 3M Corporation offers an award “designed to celebrate teaching excellence and educational leadership in all disciplines.” (p. 1) Since 1985, more than 300 higher education faculty at 80 different Canadian universities have received this fellowship. What makes it distinctive and exemplary is the dual emphasis on teaching excellence and educational leadership. Recipients aren’t only outstanding instructors, they function as “agents of change both within and beyond their institutions.” (p. 3) These recognized teachers fill various educational leadership roles, such as mentors, advocates, guardians (of standards and academic values, for example), acquisitors (of grants and support for instructional projects, etc.,), and ambassadors. The selection process starts with a nominator who oversees preparation of the applicant’s dossier. A six-member selection committee must reach consensus on the 10 applicants selected to receive the award each year. In addition to a stipend, a ring, and public recognition, those receiving the fellowship convene for a four-day retreat during which their teaching is celebrated and educational leadership roles and activities are explored. A recent analysis of the 30-plus year history of this award documents its impact on the individual recipients, their departments, institutions and higher education across Canada. Some of the examples are impressive. In the Canadian magazine Maclean’s annual rating of Canadian universities, the number of 3M Fellows on a campus is used an indicator or quality. Various groups of fellows were responsible for and contributed to the publication of three books. A widely circulated statement of “Ethical Principles in University Ethics” was authored and endorsed by a group of 3M Fellows. Over the years I have met and worked with any number of these award winners and they are an impressive teaching advocacy force, on their campuses, and beyond. Typical teaching awards are yet another way teaching can be devalued and that devaluation continues, starting with the ongoing emphasis on research over teaching and service. But teaching can also be devalued by those who do it well and who care about it deeply. It can be devalued by the way we think about it—focusing on tips, tricks, techniques, and gimmicks that keep students busy and possibly learning, by the quest for easy answers that trivialize the complexity of teaching and learning problems, and by the unwillingness to question long-held traditions that spell out who’s responsible for what in the teaching-learning process. It can be devalued by an instructional evaluation process that disregards well-established research findings. It can be devalued by giving the toughest teaching assignments (large, required courses) to the newest teachers. It is devalued by the absence of norms expecting faculty to “learn” about teaching in the same ways they must keep current in their fields. And teaching can be devalued by awards with no or vague selection criteria and small stipends, as well as by awards that fail to do anything with the storehouse of teaching wisdom they recognize. References: Chism, N. V. N., (2006). Teaching awards: What do they award? Journal of Higher Education, 77 (4), 589-617. Acai, A., Ahmad, A., Fenton, N., Graystone, L., Phillips, K., Smith, R., and Stockley, D. (2018). The 3M National Teaching Fellowship: A high-impact community of practice in higher education. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 6 (2), 1-17.