National Writing Project

Teacher Awards: A Contrarian View

By: Susan Drinkard
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 6, No. 3
Date: May-June 2001

Summary: Susan Drinkard makes the case that in order to provide true motivation for good teaching practices, teacher-of the-year awards should be based on objective criteria.


It's not a matter of professional jealousy that I believe teaching awards do more harm than good. During my 10 years as a teacher in North Idaho, I've hammered nails to hang three or maybe four plaques given for excellence in education. Although none were the coveted "teacher of the year" award many school districts annually confer upon one educator, the awards do serve to validate my efforts. Nonetheless, I believe the practice of awarding teachers with plaques and titles should be abolished.

Consider the selection process; it's often capricious at best. In my middle school last year, the faculty nominated three teachers as "teacher of the year" and by secret ballot voted for a seventh grade science teacher to receive the official recognition. The teacher is known for the hands-on learning opportunities he provides for his students. Shouldn't there have been some discussion of criteria? Teachers would not single out one student for an award without hard evidence of success: the student who didn't miss one day of school; the student who had the fastest time at the track meet; the student who had the best performance on the trumpet at contest; the student who had the highest grade point average. In order to be fair, honors bestowed on a teacher should be based on objective criteria, just like for students who earn awards for academic or athletic achievement.

In 1999, the principal must have forgotten about the contest's deadline, and he selected the "teacher of the year" from our building. She is indubitably a good teacher, but the faculty was surprised to see her photo and accompanying story in the local paper without having had any voice in the selection. This quiet woman rarely sends any discipline problems to the principal. Does this factor into an administrator's decision when it comes time for an award? The principal and the vice-principal at my school divide the roster of teachers in half when evaluation time comes. The teacher he selected is one he evaluates. Since he doesn't regularly visit classrooms facilitated by teachers who are not on his list, maybe half of the teachers were left out of the consideration.

I don't believe teachers are in every case lauded because they are particularly hard working or especially effective with students. Sometimes it's because it is "their turn," or it's because they are retiring. Perhaps they're leaving the profession because they have cancer or some terminal illness and everyone feels sorry for them. Sympathy and longevity votes don't recognize educational excellence.

In recent years, I've noticed that teachers who receive awards are often the ones who are the best at integrating technology into their classrooms. Yes, these teachers may be doing some cutting-edge work with students. Never mind one might assign a 400-point project and then sit there and read the newspaper all period for a month while the kids plow through the Internet. Never mind that student work doesn't have to be well written; the kids are doing Power Point presentations!

I know of one teacher who has been lauded for integrating technology into her primary classroom. Instead of bringing home cute stories with eraser smears on Big Chief tablets, the children bring home sterile sentences they "typed" on the computer. Who wants to put that on the refrigerator? Award worthy? Hardly.

Is the teacher who wins the "teacher of the year" designation for building an electric car with students more valuable than the teacher who works hard to impart basic math concepts? An electric car is an incredible accomplishment, but should the English teacher who passionately teaches her students how to improve their writing skills be overlooked simply because teaching about writing is not as sexy as teaching about electric cars?

A teacher can work circles around everyone-take tons of work home, contact parents on Saturdays, do fundraisers, attend sports events to support the students, read books on the profession, help to paint the teachers' room-and maybe win "teacher of the year." So you get a plaque and an ugly photo in the local paper accompanied by a dorky quotation you made up extemporaneously about how honored you feel. You still make $10,000 less than your brother-in-law who fills pop machines for a living. You still make the same as the guy down the hall whose car is gone two minutes after the last bell and who shows feature-length videos nearly all year in health class for the kids' "good mental health."

Individual awards for teaching say, in a loud voice, that all the other teachers are just not quite there yet. An award for one person does not enhance team building. Administrators need to look at the business community for ways to build each employee's self-esteem. Some businesses, such as hospitals, often designate an employee of the month. This person's picture is posted in the foyer of the hospital with a description of his or her job and a quotation stating what he or she likes about the job or what makes it particularly interesting. This news is printed in the local newspaper. Many teachers feel underappreciated; a monthly article focusing on the unique skills of a particular teacher, even a mediocre teacher, would buoy the self-esteem of that teacher, and as a result, he or she might work harder.

Awards such as "teacher of the year" are a seedy, inauthentic motive for good teaching practices. They don't help students in any way. In order for them to be meaningful, the awards should be based on consistent criteria rather than on an arbitrary selection process based on personality or popularity of the subject matter. In order for the awards to be meaningful, they should be real awards and have real benefits associated with them, such as cash or a contribution of useful resources for the classroom. Plaques just collect dust and never hang straight anyway.

About the Author SUSAN DRINKARD, a teacher-consultant with the Northwest Inland Writing Project, teaches at Sandpoint Middle School in Sandpoint, Idaho.

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