What's the point behind the awards given to teachers?

Award: a prize or other mark of recognition given in honor of an achievement

Teachers work in a field where the achievements they make are in the hearts and souls of their students. Students know if a teacher is achieving whether or not that students’ success is measurable by school standards. The truest and most valuable achievements cannot be measured by the means schools have at their disposal at this time. Those achievements are measured by the students and their families.

If a student does well by school standards, then that is considered an achievement. I always chuckled to myself when parents gave me credit for their brilliant child doing well in class. Did I do that? No, not really; all I did was guide. Doing well doesn’t mean that the student has to achieve at the top of the class. That doesn’t at all recognize what are likely the grandest, most beneficial achievements for a child. Achievements are counted when a student shows improvement. If that improvement is from a student functioning around 28% and then jumps to 45%, that’s a huge improvement and thus, is that an achievement? Who achieved, the student or the teacher, or both? If a teacher enlightens a student to want to pursue his or her best effort, is that an achievement? What if that best effort amounts to a student being successful, in the terms that education labels success, in less than 50% of the time? Is that an achievement? It depends on where that student started. But do school standards see 50% as achievement or failure? It should be determined by where the student began. Getting students interested in learning and developing curiosity, are those achievements? Getting a student to want to arrive at school on time and strive to pay attention-achievement? When a poorly behaved child begins to follow guidelines and becomes a kinder, empathetic and caring individual, does that qualify as an achievement? Yes, of course. The list can go on and on. The bigger question is, do those achievements deserve recognition for the teacher and thus, an award? Recognition, yes, but an award? No, awards are not necessary. Those are all contributions that good teachers make in a day’s work; it’s part of the job. In my experience, awards are so subjective that they may cause more harm than good. 

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers deserve recognition, tons of recognition, and they deserve awards every day. So much of what teachers do is not seen though, and teachers are typically not the type of people to broadcast what they do. Miracles happen in classrooms across this country every day and what makes it miraculous are the conditions under which teachers have to do their work. More and more, the behaviors that students bring into the classrooms prevent many of their  peers from learning at their utmost potential. Yet teachers are expected to maintain order and discipline and continue to teach no matter the emotional toll on them or their students after a volatile episode occurs in the classroom. Students, in many situations, do not come to school properly fed or clothed, and the home environment is not always conducive to a good day of learning. Again, teachers work their hardest to make each and every day one that benefits the children in front of them, and that includes feeding kids who need something more than what the school can provide or even clothing them as well. I saw that too many times in my career. To me, those are circumstances that deserve recognition and awards.  Teaching is a profession where the norm is to do things that are nowhere near the job description. Ironically, it’s also a profession where humility runs deeply and teachers do not talk of the things they do for their children beyond academics. Just a little appreciation is what most teachers would be pleased to receive, not trophies of recognition.

I was fortunate in my career to work in communities where the parents appreciated their children’s teachers, for the most part. I received hundreds of notes and cards over my career where kind words demonstrate that appreciation. Those were always the best items to get at holidays and at the end of the year. So, why do we have awards for teachers? The best I can figure is that it is to be a participant in a competition among other districts and possibly earn some bragging rights. Beyond that, I truly don’t know, and I was in the thick of those competitions, at times.

I was lucky enough to have received the appreciation from my community and be nominated for my district’s Teacher of the Year award. In fact, I was fortunate enough to be nominated four times in 19 years. It sounds great: Teacher of the Year, and it looks good on paper. But, in the end, it means very little. I know because I won once.

Does being named Teacher of the Year in a fairly large suburban school district mean anything? It depends on how that is measured. To me, the best part were the letters written on my behalf that nominated me. It was enough for me to know that some  parents of my students felt that what I was doing was worthy of an award, and it was an enormous honor for me to receive that recognition. It came from the people who meant the most: the parents of my students. They described the positive impact I was having on their children. That’s the award right there.

Did it mean anything outside of that? I guess it looks good on a resume, and when people introduced me as Teacher of the Year, it impressed those meeting me. However, I know better. I know that being named Teacher of the Year was simply a competition in which my district participated. From district Teacher of the Year, the competition moves to the County Teacher of the Year, then the state level and finally National Teacher of the Year. The district looks good if its entry wins.

I wrote so many pages of answers to questions for the four times I was nominated. I spent an entire summer preparing for my county level competition. I had to put together a packet of 30 pages and submit that to prove I was worthy of being the County Teacher of the Year. I had to do a panel interview. I got to be filmed in another interview for some local cable tv channel. It was a ton of work, and for what, really? Was it the shiny trophy? Was it the notice that you are the “best” teacher in the county? No, because the person who wins is the one who fits the profile that the committee is looking for at that time. I worked in gifted education. I didn’t have the sad stories of my children’s families to tell along with the teacher overcoming gigantic obstacles; those are the desired stories it seems. I witnessed it more than once. In fact, movies are made of such stories. I even know of a teacher who lied about her story, and she won! I could only tell stories of high achievements from kids that most people think come to school smart and teach themselves and that the teacher’s role is minimal. That is a huge fallacy. I never worked harder than the years I worked in gifted education.

In the middle of my interview at the county level, I was talking about some great ideas in gifted education. I was rolling. That was my drive: put gifted education on the map for some of these people. The panel was large, maybe a dozen people. They were high ranking officials from districts in the county. The worst part was that I was giving my thoughts on gifted education and suddenly, as I was talking, I noticed something. They had stopped writing and recording my ideas. I wanted to say, “Hey, you are missing some great ideas here. Get writing!” The problem was that I wasn’t going to fit the mold they were wanting to fill. Additionally, I don’t know that they would recognize good gifted education ideas if they got hit over the head with them. They just didn’t know because gifted education is not a priority, and so, in my experience, district officials are ignorant about gifted education. I am sorry to say that, but I lived it for many years. And that, is the biggest take away I had from my interview. It was also the saddest.

I did not win the county level competition. During the evening when all the area Teachers of the Year were honored and we got to give speeches (there’s a video somewhere on YouTube of my speech) it came time to announce the “winners” for the county. The first winner was being announced as a fourth grade teacher . . . and the thought in my head was, “Oh no!” I was a fourth grade teacher. The announcer went on to give the name of a different fourth grade teacher, and I was relieved. I think it was at that moment that I realized how much I did not want to win. I didn’t want to continue to compete with other teachers at the next level. For what? For nothing! Teaching is a collaboration, not a competition. I wanted to get out of the competition and back into the collaboration. I wanted my undivided attention on my new class of students. Teachers should be appreciated and recognized, but awarded when they have to beat other teachers for the award? There should be numerous awards given every year to teachers. Not all deserve it, that’s for sure, but the teachers I know closely spend inordinate amounts of time making sure that their students have what they need and that often extends well beyond academics. How can one teacher be awarded when hundreds or thousands should?

I remember getting to speak a small handful of times as Teacher of the Year. Every time I made sure to underline the fact that I represent all the amazing teachers of my school district. I made sure to relate that a vast number of them could be Teacher of the Year. I didn’t for one moment think that I was the best teacher in the district. What a farce. I was their pick to go to the next level. Making it worse is that there were over 50 nominations for the “honor” and by the time my district interview rolled around, there were only five who were in the running. You see, people don’t submit the application. They know what the award is, and they are not interested. I always felt that if parents took the time to nominate me, I should move my application forward, so I did. I remember that part way through my district level interview it hit me that I didn’t want to do this. I completed the interview and over night, I decided to pull my nomination. Before I could do so, I got an email stating that they wanted to observe me for the next piece of the selection process. I agreed to the observation as my parents had nominated me, and I felt I should carry this through. In the end, I was named as a Teacher of the Year for my district. On to the next level of the competition. 

As time went on, it was clear that we did nothing as the Teacher of the Year except compete at the next level. If we were such great teachers, how come people didn’t come to watch us teach? If we were so great, why weren’t we speaking to promote good teaching? If we were so great, why didn’t we go around to schools and model our amazing teaching? It’s because teaching awards are bogus. I was resented by members of my staff the year I had the award. That award opened the door to two other awards that I received that year. I valued those far more than Teacher of the Year. At first, people were happy for me, but then, hard feelings broke out. Part of it was because they, too, didn’t always understand gifted education. They thought my students were perfectly behaved students who needed very little teaching and that my job was easy. Why would I be getting these awards when my job was “easy” compared to theirs? That’s what giving teaching awards does. It creates animosity and situations where others feel deprived and cheated. Should they have gotten an award? Most of them, yes! They did incredible things in their classrooms. Should I have gotten an award? Well, that’s an interesting question.

I worked hard for my students, no doubt. I would challenge anyone to work harder. Others may work as hard, but harder? That would be tough to find. Hours and hours went into writing curriculum, writing feedback on every paper, updating websites, serving on committees, the usual teacher things. The irony to me was that the years I was nominated for awards were years where my job wasn’t as challenging as other years. By challenging, I mean that the needs of the students included many other factors besides academic. Some years, my primary job was to deliver a challenging program loaded with age appropriate rigor and motivate my students to maximize the amazing potential they had. Other years, the rigor may have had to be dropped a bit, and time had to be spent on behavior and social/emotional needs more than other years. Educators know that every class is different, and the challenges of teaching change from year to year. In the years where I really had to work hard on academics, behavior and emotional issues, those were the years I better earned an award, if one was to be given. But those were not the years I was nominated. I have a reason for that, but I will keep that to myself. Thus, to me, “award winning years” went unrecognized while the easier, and to be sure it wasn’t easy, just easier, years received the recognition and awards. That further leads me to think that awards in teaching are absurd. People don’t know enough about what goes into the profession to give awards. Again, it’s very nice recognition, but shouldn’t hundreds of teachers per district get that recognition?

I won a national award from Johns Hopkins University for my work with gifted students. That was the best award I got in my career. Johns Hopkins gathered all of us, along with the winners from many years, to discuss gifted education programs and ideas. Those weekends occurred annually and we created documents to use in the implementation of gifted education. Johns Hopkins did something with the winners. I was able to share my thoughts on educating gifted children. Ten teachers across the country are given the honor each year, and that I was one of them astounds me. I wear that award with pride. No one noticed it though. A press release was written by Johns Hopkins University and sent to my district to announce that I had gotten the award. Guess what-not one word was mentioned anywhere. I didn’t get a congratulatory email or phone call from anyone in the district. It wasn’t mentioned in the numerous district publications. It went completely unrecognized by the district because it didn’t lead to another level of competition where they could brag about their winner. My principal recognized me and gave me the floor to tell my staff what I had received. No one expressed congratulations to me, and that is when the grudges began. So, what do awards mean? Not a lot.

Scores of teachers across this country deserve recognition. Too many times teachers take the brunt of society’s ills. Too many times educators get the blame for kids not performing. It’s not at all like we are the only ones who hold the key to a kid’s success. Yes, we have a monumental role in that, but we are not the sole keepers of children’s successes. When a teacher is awarded for doing his or her job well, how many worthy others are shunned? Stop giving awards and instead recognize all the teachers who put their souls, their hearts, their sweat, their personal hours, and their tears into their jobs to give of themselves over and over again so that the children in front of them can find success in some aspect of their school day.

If awards truly are to be given, then simply interviewing people and having them write answers to questions is simply insufficient. People lie. I know it. I’ve seen it. Some people are not writers. I know that too as I was on the panel to select Teachers of the Year. Yet, does that make them teachers who are unworthy of an award? Of course not. It does make them less capable to do well on the paperwork for the next level of the competition, though.

If we have to give awards, then there should be a process where colleagues are interviewed about the potential recipient. The selection committees need to be in classrooms to observe teachers at work. They need to get a feel for how the students are treated, how the teacher inspires and motivates children, and how the teacher is able to assist children in accessing knowledge. They need to see how the students treat each other as that is an insight into the culture of a classroom, which needs to be heavily weighed. They need to see the environment in which the students work, and they need to observe the style of the teacher. However, that takes a great deal of time, and time is a resource we do not have to give in today’s world. Therefore, maybe we just shouldn’t have teacher competitions; we should have teacher collaborations instead.

One of the ideas in my speech for Teacher of the Year at the county dinner was that we had the opportunity to listen to thoughts and ideas from teachers around the county. That was invaluable to me. If we are to award people for teaching, then let them be the leaders who are selected to model teaching, consult with teachers around the county, build programs designed to enhance student learning and exchange thoughts on education and where we can lead it. Instead, awards are all about the next level of the competition. That doesn’t enhance a single student’s learning. Collaborating with others would, but then, the district doesn’t want those ideas, at least mine didn’t. The people at the top think they know what’s best but they haven’t a clue, really. I had too many communications with those who are supposed to know, but they sadly showed that they don’t know. They collected a bigger salary than me, but their positive impact on students was highly questionable. Instead, why don’t they ask for the perspectives of the people who should be “awarded”? The room would be overflowing with amazing ideas. Educational reform starts with the people who are doing the educating. They should be trusted to create the policies that will lead students to more growth and thus, strengthen our communities. Those who are in the trenches have the most at stake; they work for the children, and thus, they should direct the manner in which education is delivered. It might just be worth a try.

Receiving recognition for being a Teacher of the Year for my district.

The question is, For what purpose?

I do thank all the parents who nominated me. That is my award and you are valued by me!

For further reading:

Teacher Awards: A Contrarian View from National Writing Project

Why Teacher of the Month Awards Destroy Morale, from Bored Teachers

The Problem with Awards Ceremonies, from The Reflective Educator

The same ideas in the above article can easily be applied to educator awards