About a month and a half ago, I found out I had been nominated for the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
To some people, it is a very big deal. There is no equivalent award for English teachers or art teachers or social studies teachers. The need for math and science teachers is such a big deal that there is a law that authorizes the awarding of 106 medals annually; one math and one science teacher from each state and several territories. The award alternates between high school teachers in odd numbered years and elementary/middle school teachers in even numbered years. The award is a nice medal, $10,000, and a free trip to Washington to have dinner with the president and get your medal. My high school physics teacher, whom I keep in touch with, received this award several years ago. He’s really good, and he deserved it.
Yet … as this article points out … this year only 85 awards will be given out. 21 awards will be left unclaimed. Not because so many applications were rejected … many of the nominees (inluding me) simply refused to participate.
So why would greedy, money grubbing teachers turn down glory, power, thousands in cash, and a free vacation to Washington to rub shoulders with the political elite?
The article notes several reasons:
1. Some of the applicants felt they weren’t deserving or knew they weren’t deserving, and therefore didn’t apply.
2. The award program really isn’t all that big a deal
3. The judging process has problems … how does one evaluate “the best”?
4. The application process is a real bear!
I will comment on some reasons I didn’t go through.
As far as point number one is concerned, I think I am a good teacher, but having seen some previous winners, I know I am not that good. I also know that looking at my own school, there are a minimum of six teachers I would rank ahead of myself in terms of being a better teacher. There might be more. The horror would be: if I took the initiative to go through with this award, and then actually got it, this is the equivalent of saying “I think I am better or as good as you”. It would create a very uncomfortable situation.
Several of our teachers have been nominated in the past, they have all bridled at participating. It has become a part of our department’s culture: you don’t actively go after awards like these.
As for point 2 … the article contradicts itself … everyone in the profession knows it is a big deal … as a matter off fact, winning this award promotes you to “national level expert in education”. Winners are usually in the rolodex of local reporters when they need quotes on education. Some have been called in to comment on legislation in the state house. Everyone knows it is a “big deal” … for those who think awards are a big deal.
On Point #3: The entire teaching profession is up in arms over how to evaluate teachers. No one likes being evaluated or assessed, though it is a part of life. Few people do it voluntarily. Most teachers, including me, think that assessing teaching is more like assessing art than assessing something scientifically. People who hold degrees in education vehemently disagree. Thus, a lot of teachers (especially math and science teachers who tend to be the most skeptical about evaluative methods), tend to avoid these kinds of competitions.
Keep in mind: a lot of science teachers list people like Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein and the such as their heroes … when these people won the Nobel Prize (which they did not particiapte in the process of nominating themselves), they tried to find a way to get out of it … they didn’t want this. They accepted it after being told that turning down the prize would generate even more publicity and screw up their lives even more. Feyman later seemed to suggest in his biography that this likely wasn’t the case, and that the award did nothing to really make him happy.
In short, science and math teachers tend to be in a profession where prize winning, especially based on subjective criteria, is not a part of their culture. I think a lot of people in the math and science field believe more in meritocracy.
I can attest to point #4 … it is a bear of an application. Five long essay questions, verification from the school and district, and then a single unedited video of one single lesson. This isn’t the reason why I think a lot of people don’t go through with this … I think that if a lot of teachers thought it was worthwhile, they would.
After I got nominated, I happened to be on the phone with a friend and mentioned it to him. I was trying to think of an excuse why I might actually go through with this. He noted that with the uncertainty in our profession (will tenure be there to protect me when I get some ignorant jerk administrator deciding my future), it would be good to have an award like this in my back pocket either to defend myself, or to get a new job.
He was absolutely right, but upon contemplation, that reassured me that I was doing the right thing by not applying. I couldn’t imagine receiving such an award and then saying “I accept this award so that I might one day have a job”.
How would that sound? Not so good. Maybe the day will come when I decide that I am worthy of such a thing, and maybe I will get nominated and maybe I will take the needed steps.
But, that’s for another time.