Make the Most of Best Teacher Awards

To the Editor:

I appreciate Jacques Berlinerblau’s recent article “Best Teacher Awards are Bunk” (The Chronicle Review, August 21st). Along with graduate schools’ failure to provide pedagogical training and university tenure review processes that “render undergraduates an afterthought,” Berlinerblau includes Best Teacher awards among the obstacles to good teaching in higher education. His criticisms include: celebrating individual heroics rather than collaborative efforts; perpetuating “inscrutable” criteria for great teaching; and substituting rhetoric for a realistic approach to good teaching. Berlinerblau’s concerns are apt, yet there is no novelty in pointing out the flaws of any profession’s awards culture. We also need to approach the issue soberly and seek to make Best Teacher awards meaningful and constructive.

First, let’s acknowledge that “hype and sentimentality” are not inherent to recognitions of great teaching. Many are low-key, purposeful affairs. Nor do they often come with a lottery-sized award. Berlinerblau cherry-picks Baylor’s Cherry Award, with its six-figure prize. He does not mention that award winners have used portions of their money to endow student awards. We should also note the promise of low-stakes, low-cost awards that laud specific behaviors rather than career achievements.

Second, we must evaluate the role of such awards in the education ecosystem. While awards center on an individual, the benefits can be constructively communal, even a crucial part of the “continuous circle” of teaching excellence. The key is that as with all scholarship, so with learning about teaching: there is no “goal,” as such, no end-game; only improvement. Therefore, we should require Best Teacher awardees to contribute to pedagogical development in significant and concrete ways — not giving them multiple victory parades or carefully circumscribed teacher-in-residence gigs. They should get to work training other teachers. We should also implement “prospective” teaching awards, with weight in tenure and promotion.

Despite Berlinerblau’s understandable cynicism, universities are making “financial investments required to facilitate good teaching,” particularly through Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTL). Certainly, CTL cannot fix everything, even if they do get in the advocacy game. But CTL are, for instance, doing promising work in graduate student teacher training, putting more competent graduate student teachers in classrooms and creating a pedagogical foundation for their careers. This may also steadily change institutional thinking around Best Teacher awards. Because the criteria for great teaching will be less mysterious to new generations who receive teaching training, they will challenge the notion that the Best Teacher is someone who overcomes exaggerated obstacles and meets outrageous expectations, resulting in more respect for and relatability to great teachers. And, perhaps, less confetti.

Christopher Richmann
Assistant Director, Academy for Teaching and Learning
Affiliate Faculty, Religion
Baylor University

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