Regrets. “Best Teacher” Awards.

This post isn’t really about regrets. It is about “Best Teacher” contests and awards. But if you read to the end, you’ll get some shock and awe, a surprise, a confession – my own “regret”.

This post is about a tweet I made decrying the notion of “Best Teacher” and the many contests out there pitting teacher against teacher. Here’s the tweet. Part of my ELT Pet Peeve series.

It set off a tweet storm and I’m glad, it’s a healthy debate. Let me explain my side of things, my beliefs. I’ll apologize in advance for the many digressions but it’s an important topic about our society, our teaching culture and the values we want to teach ourselves and our students.

First, let’s look at our wider culture. That’s where all this “contest” nonsense stems. Slowly since the 70s, we’ve witnessed the ascent of libertarian values dressed up in the form of conservatism, individualism, laissez-faire “ism”. “Dog eat dog” is what it really is. Think, Survival. Think Trump. Think the Apprentice. Think the UFC and mixed martial arts. Think the Voice and all those other “best” TV shows pitting cooks, sword makers, moms, kids, dog owners against each other to win a prize. The hidden force of culture (our values) is best seen through the lense of our media.

And education has not been the exception – think standardized tests, college/high school / kindergarten entrance requirements. Think ELT standardized testing and test prep regimes. Think “The Best Teacher” awards.

There are many of these awards pretending to celebrate teachers but which by default rip into the tried and true belief that education is about every child, every teacher and a shared journey – not a race up the dung heap and damn those below.

TESOL Int. has of course climbed onto the bandwagon. Pearson has their own too. And we got to mention the Global Teacher Prize – where we elect and anoint the “chosen one” for all educators to follow and emulate. But every regional or small educational organization is having these “beauty” contests.

Now you may say as one person did on twitter – “Hey, I didn’t feel disparaged because I didn’t win.” Maybe so. But the award is much larger than just what is felt in each teacher’s heart. It is part of what makes up the fabric that is education. And I don’t think we want to build an educational model that excludes, that compares others to others, that is about competition and winning and NOT learning. Let me explain.

A while back, a decade or so, I was part of setting up the TEE – Teaching English In English program for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, the world’s largest school board. The TEE program was a training curriculum awarding the best English teachers a certificate. These graduates in turn would then serve as mentors to other teachers and help create a culture of “Teaching English In English”. It was a miserable failure. Still is.

What happened was that these highly sought after certificates demotivated most of the 19,000 + English teachers in the school board who knew they didn’t have a chance in hell of getting them. It created dissention and jealousy. We didn’t see this coming but it happened.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a teacher and especially as one trained as a Jr. Int. (middle school) teacher is the concept of fairness. You treat one child differently and you’ll have the whole class hating you. It’s true. It’s an important value in education. Every child counts. I think too, every teacher counts. Best Teacher awards run counter to this and erode the foundations of teacher professional development.

Who is “the best”? What are the standards? If teaching has taught me anything, it is that teaching is transactional in nature. It isn’t a one-off thing – good or bad. It depends on so many factors, situations, contexts. It depends on so many human forces, hearts. There will never be any clear set of criteria to judge the best teacher. The race will always be rigged – no matter how we try that it may not be.

I’ll also add that it is in the teacher’s Hippocratic oath (wish there were one) that we value, care, teach, nurture EVERY student. There are no favorites. (see the work of Nel Noddings in this respect) Best Teacher awards fly in the face of that – let’s align our own actions with that of the classroom. In addition – you’ll often hear people claim, “We are preparing students for the real world. In the real world, there is competition.”. Please read my recent full article on this – The Fallacy Of Competition. But let me add here that education is not about preparing for the real world. Education is about preparing students who will CHANGE that real world and make it a better place. A place we can value.

Best Teacher awards are a bad idea because at its heart is the premise that there are good teachers and there are bad teachers. I disagree wholeheartedly with any event which embodies such inequitable values. Besides those teachers who are blatantly incompetent – we are all good teachers. Good teachers that unfortunately sometimes face impossible challenges, teaching environments not suited to our own strengths.

Further, there are much better ways to value teachers. Our job is so important but doesn’t get valued as it should because it is so “invisible”. We need to do all we can to have teachers valued in society but “Best Teacher” awards aren’t the way to go about it.

What are some of these alternative ways to celebrate teaching?

  1. Random Selection. Randomly select a teacher to represent all other teachers. Use that as the basis of an award.
  2. Open up our schools and classrooms. Celebrate teachers where they do their work. Too many schools aren’t open and allow the public to visit, be part of things.
  3. Go Local. Recognize all teachers through strong contracts with rewards. Livable wages. Doable teaching hours. Prep time. Security.
  4. Most improved teacher. Link achievement to an actual case and result. What’s important isn’t the best – it’s the will to improve and the struggle.

We have more important problems to direct our energy towards in education than she’s a good teacher, he’s a bad teacher, glitter, gossip and pretense. I’ve always been inspired by John Taylor Gatto, now 6 months gone. He was 3 times, the N.Y. State Teacher of the Year. Here’s his timeless award speech. One year later, he quit. He couldn’t live with and up to the false values the award represented. Also, other Teacher of the Year winners who experienced the same, even lost their job!

I liked this recent tweet.

So to end, 2 things.

1. Let’s celebrate all teachers and not set up a dynamic whereby there are winners and losers in our teaching communities.

2. Let’s align our beliefs with our actions. It’s important we don’t just talk about this but we also get our bodies speaking what is in our hearts. Meaning, let’s speak out about these awards, challenge the organizers to change them. Make a difference.

And lastly, my regret. As Michael Griffin made me aware of and properly called me out on – I am listed as a voting member of the Kotesol “Teacher of the Year” award. I am now rescinding my support and have asked the organizers to take my off the advisory board. I forgot all about this and at the time did have my qualms but agreed to help them out as part of wider involvment and support. That was wrong. A good lesson for me!

Everyone’s A Winner! We are all Simply The Best. (two lesson materials to use in class for this topic).


  • Karl Millsom

    I can’t agree with everything here, but the underlying premise I am fully on board with. More important than that though, there’s is little more valuable in the current age than a person willing to own up to his errors. For boldly doing so at the end of the article, I thank you and commend you.

    • ELT Buzz

      Thanks Carl. Appreciate that you see that. I saw your post about “doubling down” and I’m definitely not that guy. It’s all a journey and I think one of the liberating things about getting older is recognizing you don’t know it all, you aren’t perfect, you are still growning.

  • Olivia Price-Bates

    Interesting read. I agree that when thinking about teachers we should avoid superlatives. It seems that bandying about the term “best” feels that teaching is something finite, as though these teachers have reached the pinnacle of their careers and can now sit back, put down the board pens and bask in the glory of their “best teacher” status. It undermines the whole growth mindset which has been nurtured over the last few decades. And that for me is a shame.

    • ELT Buzz

      Yes good point to mention. It does kind of suggest there is an end. Get there. Then you are “the best” and don’t have to learn anything anymore … just be king or queen of the castle. It’s not the right educational philosophy to espouse. Thanks for dropping by!

  • Rob Dickey

    I too have grave misgivings about a Teacher of the Year award, but not for the reasons you offer. I do believe there is clearly a top tier of teachers, a middle, and those sorely underperforming. I just don’t think we have adequate ways to assess who are which (but for, maybe, some of the lower levels, maybe). What do we judge, and who does the judging? And, yes, I am a member of the KOTESOL Teacher of the Year committee, and despite my misgivings on process, I do think it is something that we should foster — a process that encourages teachers to think about what they are doing well and less well, and to document that. How we get more teachers to do this, and what we encourage them doing, is part of the challenge. 20 Years ago a group of folks tried to foster an ELT teacher qualification scheme for continuing professional development — the BIELT. It failed. Maybe it’s time to bring this back: recognizing many teachers rather than one.

    • ELT Buzz

      That’s a good point. The focus should be on recognizing teacher development. That’s why I do agree that we should recognize teachers that are developing. But that’s a lot different than a one off contest of “best”. Reward, recognize, applaud all teachers that are trying to be better. That’s where I’m at in the discussion. I do not agree with your thoughts about “tiers” of teachers. As you suggest, who judges, who really knows? Some teachers you’d never consider “top tier” change lives. They do. But I welcome this debate. We need this issue raised more imho.

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