Shooting stars

March 2011


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Bang goes your career? Some things you might want to know about winning a national teaching award.

Three Prime Minister’s Award winners from New Zealand and Australia offer thoughts from their own experience.

The National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards ceremony is over. You’ve returned to your institution, both delighted and slightly baffled by all the attention. But, as you headed home, you may have found yourself wondering what a teaching award might mean – for your career, for your life? Can a teaching award ever be a poisoned chalice? How can it be used to make a difference in your professional life?

First – celebrate, enjoy the fuss and the sensation of success and then brace yourself for pressure. Everyone now expects you to be a stellar performer. However, great teaching is not reducible to stand-up comedy and the gift of the gab. Great teachers inspire learning, link research and teaching and respect and support students, and it is worth thinking about what you might do to further those aims.

Be prepared for some disappointment. Some colleagues may not know about your award, may not care or may be envious. Remarkably, some may think less of you as a result of the award, perhaps suggesting that recognising, rewarding and celebrating teaching is a misguided pursuit. Whatever the reasons, their silence or, even worse, their barbed comments can be hurtful. Steel yourself for these possibilities, rise above any pettiness, and don’t let the negativity of others undermine your achievements. And be aware that there are people out there who really do value your work, appreciate your effort, and want you to share your talents with them.

You may need to allow yourself some time to get used to having a higher profile. A teaching award may shoot you out of your comfort zone and offer new possibilities. It’s fine to feel off balance, and even a little anxious, for a while; but we would encourage you to grab your opportunities with both hands.

Manage upwards. Your supervisor, dean and/or vice-chancellor might be excited by your success but might not have thought strategically about what you do next. Help them identify what would and would not be good for you, your faculty and your institution. For example, what presentations do they want you to do, to whom, and why? Are there any leadership roles in your institution or more broadly that you might be able to take on? Which requests are your supervisors happy for you to refuse?

Beware becoming your institution’s ‘show teacher’, trotted out on special occasions to demonstrate the “institution’s commitment to teaching excellence”. Repeated focus on the work and achievements of an individual or small group of people may be counter-productive. Just imagine the annoyance and frustration of long-serving and highly effective colleagues. They may not have not received awards and perhaps quite justifiably feel that their sterling work is being overlooked and undervalued. And in such cases you may well find that it is you who is the focus of those frustrations, not the institution.

Rattle some doorknobs. No-one really knows what a teaching award allows you to do. Identify some of the things that interest you and try using the award as the opening. Look beyond your traditional hunting grounds – outside your discipline, institution and geographical location. Think of some of the ways the skills you have demonstrated so clearly in teaching might be transferred to other fields. We’ve found ourselves acting as an external examiner in Hong Kong; engaged in board-level work for other secondary and tertiary institutions. We have joined editorial and review boards of various scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) journals in the United States and the United Kingdom, we have become senior fellows of the Higher Education Academy in the United Kingdom, associate fellows and discipline scholars of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, and honorary visiting scholars at universities overseas.

Sometimes, when you look for an opening, you’ll get a polite ‘no’. Sometimes, you’ll be ignored. Sometimes, you’ll be met with tail-wagging, face-licking enthusiasm. Try to look for activities that might support any longer-term ambitions you have for service, management and research as well as teaching.

Plan your next promotion application with the teaching award as one of the jewels in your crown. Your organisation will have stated, all over its strategic plans, that teaching excellence (or similar) is one of its core objectives. Encourage them to prove it.

Join the Ako Aotearoa Academy. It’s a great place to meet people who are just as passionate about teaching as you are and who really care about promoting good teaching in the tertiary sector. Go to the Academy symposium and prepare to encounter new ideas and engaging colleagues. If there’s a local branch of the Academy near you, join up and see what you can contribute.

Prepare to defend your research track record if you work in an institution where research matters. One of us was warned that a teaching award represented the end of our career as we would either be seen as a non-researcher or would inevitably head in that direction. Take care to manage your academic identity to create the impression you want or need. If it is important to you, protect your research interests and find ways to keep going. Consider whether new areas of research may open up for you around the teaching-research nexus. Make the teaching award work for you, not against you, in all areas of your professional life.

Encourage and support your colleagues. What are the chances that you really are the best teacher in your institution? Offer to review applications for your institution – you will probably be asked to do so anyway. Nothing takes pressure off you faster than having colleagues in your discipline or institution emulating your success. Build networks with other award winning teachers, both within and beyond your own organisation, and consider what you can do to extend best practice, support the wider teaching community, and develop teaching research groups.

Learn to say ‘no’ with grace. You might find yourself approached incessantly – and with little regard for your other commitments – to review applications, join committees, lead professional development sessions… manage your workload, or ask your supervisor to help you with this. Not every offer is a good offer. If you might agree to invitations under particular conditions, state these conditions. Ask yourself what’s in it for you, and for your institution. Consider whether there’s any particular reason why you are the right person for this, and if there isn’t, say ‘no’ or deflect the request to colleagues who might be looking for such an opportunity. You’re a busy person.

Finally… enjoy. Hold the award lightly, don’t take yourself too seriously, let your professional life open up, grab opportunities, speak to new issues, challenge institutional poor practice, take risks, see where serendipity leads you – celebrate others’ successes, toast the award winners who come after you, be a mentor, and above all have some fun. You’ve earned it.

###The authors of this piece are Associate Professor Lisa Emerson, Massey University; Winthrop Professor Mark Israel, The University of Western Australia; and Professor Iain Hay, Flinders University, South Australia. Emerson was winner of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Supreme Award in the 2008 round of the National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards. Israel and Hay received the Australian Prime Minister’s Award in 2004 and 2006 respectively.

The awards are managed in Australia by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. In New Zealand they are managed by Ako Aotearoa – The National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence. Nominations for the 2011 round of the National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards close on 31 March. Details and forms from: