Grade Expectations: Why ”˜Teacher Of The Year’ Awards Need To Go

Teacher of the YearGrade Expectations is a weekly look at education from a parent’s perspective. We’ll talk special needs, gifted & talented, and everything in between. 

Even as a kid, I was fascinated by “Teacher of the Year” awards. Who on earth decided? What was the criteria? Shouldn’t awards have concrete expectations and ways to win? I would sit around and rate my teachers in my head, then get highly offended when someone from a different school won. Even worse, sometimes teachers at my school would win who I didn’t think were amazing at all. And what did the recipients get for being so supposedly outstanding? A Golden Apple? Their name mentioned at a local sporting event? Yippee.

Back then, I already knew that “Teacher of the Year” awards seemed like a pretty bogus way to honor teachers. It seemed like a meaningless gesture when there were so many substantive things we could be doing for teachers and schools.

Now as an adult, I’m completely convinced that this little bit of pageantry needs to go. We need to say good-bye to “Teacher of the Year” awards completely. They still don’t have defined criteria, they don’t effect anyone’s job, and we need better ways to reward our most successful educators.

A few examples have been popping up in the news as to how meaningless these awards are. Erica DePalo, Essex County, New Jersey’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, isn’t doing quite so well in 2012. This past Friday, she was arrested and accused of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student. She has been immediately suspended from her position, and her former students are stunned. It should be noted that many of these awards are determined solely by essays submitted by students. If a teacher forms a close relationship with a single student or a couple, they could receive an award based on the strength of that single essay. It won’t take into account any of the other students this teacher is working with.

This past spring, the Sacramento City Unified School District laid off it’s most recent ‘Teacher of the Year.” The school was facing budget constraints and can only save faculty based on seniority. The teacher, though supposedly excellent, was low on the totem pole and had to be let go. The school district’s most prestigious honor could do nothing to save her from the chopping block.

We need better way to evaluate teachers and we need better ways to reward them. Having a “Teacher of the Year” award pretends that we’re doing both of those things, but it isn’t really happening. The award is lip service and it makes it look like we’re dealing with a serious problem. Except we aren’t.

Teachers shouldn’t be rated based on the strength of a single recommendation from a single student. They shouldn’t be evaluated merely by test scores either. Like any job, education is a complex one, and we need better ways to show what teachers are successful. The amazing educators are able to reach a diverse group of students. They can’t connect on multiple levels. That’s different from inspiring a single person to write in an essay.

Teachers deserve a better reward for truly amazing work than a quick pat on the back. If a teacher is truly phenomenal, it should reflect in their pay. It should reflect in their seniority. And teachers’ unions need to work with their school boards to find a way to do that. They need to make sure that those who are best at their job get to stay there.

A lot of work needs to be done for teachers. Those silly awards do not count, and honestly, they don’t matter. So let’s get rid of them. They distract from the real issues.

(Photo: Scott Rothstein/Shutterstock)

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