Earning a Distinguished Teaching Award: A Moment for Recognition and Reflection

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

Shawn Higgins

Temple University

When I arrived in the dusty town of Socorro, New Mexico, a recent graduate working at the local café told me that the students at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology would hate my classes. I was there to teach them English. All they wanted to do was science, all day, every day. Despite this barista's curse as she stirred the mocha in her cauldron, my students ended up loving the classes. In fact, I was honored with the Distinguished Teaching Professor award at the end of my very first year. This award came with a cash prize of $2500, the same amount given to the Distinguished Research Professor. Apparently, my attempt at being a relatable, reliable, and relevant professor warranted the same monetary recognition as someone curing cancer with her research.

Since 1986, I was only the fourth professor in communication, liberal arts, and/or social sciences to have won the distinguished teaching award at my institution. Fourteen of the last thirty-two awards went to engineering professors, with another fourteen given to science professors. What made my teaching of English so distinguished that a bunch of mechatronics students voted for me? In pursuit of not just distinguished teaching but also teaching expertise, I would like to recognize here the ideas of scholars who influenced my approaches and reflect on the concept of teaching well.

The institute that year labeled my teaching "distinguished." What does that mean? It sounds like my pedagogy has silver streaks in its hair and wears a hound's tooth jacket. If not that, then is "distinguished" a synonym for "excellent"? Let's consider what teaching excellence means. First, how does one teach excellently? I agree with Carolin Kreber that excellent teachers motivate students, clearly convey concepts and assignments, and assist students through their educational journeys (Kreber, 2002, p. 5). I first got ideas about how to do these things in the methodological courses of my TESOL certificate program. Conceptual courses in cross-cultural communication and cultural diversity, as well as pedagogical courses in teaching vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and writing, have proven foundational to my evolving teaching philosophy. Upon that foundation then are stacked my observations and experiences as a student, being one who sat and learned in community college, in large state universities, and the Ivy League, as well as my experiments and reflections as a teacher. My daily flailing and fumbling in front of classrooms is all part of my journey toward teaching excellence.

Excellent professors should also seek innovation, provide   meaningful activities, secure teacher-student honesty,  situate their approaches, encourage critical thinking,  anchor  student retention, nurture feedback loops, and  foster inclusivity (Shephard, Harland, Stein, & Tidswell,  2011, p. 50). However, I know many other professors with   solid methodology and reflective pedagogy who haven't  won  a distinguished teaching award yet. So who ends up  winning one?

While I can't answer that definitively, I do want to extend and reflect on Alan Skelton's argument that we should acknowledge teaching excellence as a "contested concept which is historically and situationally contingent" (Skelton, 2004, p. 452). Historical changes, such as new classroom technologies, as well as the cultural and political zeitgeist, dictate what "broader discourses or ideologies of education," we deem excellent at a given time. What works for one professor in one historical and spatial setting with one swath of the student population might not work for another. There are also implicit biases in students that influence whose teaching excellence can be seen and acknowledged and whose is ignored or denied.

Optimistically, I do believe that certain practices in higher education have a high probability of being effective in multiple classrooms. One review of solid teaching practices confirms that students appreciate when professors encourage them to actively participate in a challenging and thought-provoking learning environment (Revell & Wainwright, 2009, p. 212) The emphasis on encourage here is my own; encourage is not synonymous with expect, require, demand, or intimidate. For effective ways to encourage student participation, read and consider Todd Zakrajsek's article in The Scholarly Teacher from 28 September 2018.

I best understand Revell and Wainwright's usage of the combination "challenging and thought-provoking" to mean complex.

Complexity, not complicatedness, is a worthwhile pursuit for the sakes of instructors and students alike.

When preparing and then seasoning an assignment prompt, imagine being on an episode of your favorite competitive cooking television program. Go for complexity – an assignment with less than a few parts that mingle, coalesce, and do such a beautiful tango together that the idea of separating them is unthinkable, an assignment that makes the judges/students go "It's brilliant how you blended these things together!" Avoid complicatedness – assignments where those same judges ask, "Why would you include this?" and remark that there are "just too many things going on here" as they push your carefully crafted molecular beet foam aside in confusion. Complicatedness engenders confusion, frustration, anger, self-doubt, resentment, and, ultimately, apathy. Complexity is different from complicatedness. Students appreciate complexity when it challenges them within reason and manageability. Solving something complex breeds satisfaction.

Moreover, I would like to offer three axioms of my own in the spirit of pursuing teaching expertise:

  • Never believe that your class should be your students' top priority; let them come to that realization.

  • Always strive for equity by stretching and reshaping equality.

  • Do what you can to give every student what they need. Set your ego aside about "fair practices" and "lessons to be learned." If you can extend an offer to a student, act on that capacity, even if it doesn't seem fair to the rest of the class or even if that student might miss out on a lesson from the school of hard knocks. That school is overrated in the rankings.

Discussion Questions:

1. What are the specific social, economic, and political contexts in which your teaching and learning practices take place? After identifying these, how can you go about securing equity for your teaching practices within your institution, and how can you provide equity for your students in their learning practices?

2. Considering Raymond Williams' assertion that the content of education expresses certain essential elements of a culture and that these chosen elements are the sum of a system of emphases and omissions (2011, p. 153), what further or alternative emphases and/or omissions are you willing and able to make in consideration of your students' futures?

3. What do you think is the strongest contributor to student apathy at the institution where you work? What actions can be taken to weaken its effects?


Kreber, C. (2002). Teaching Excellence, Teaching Expertise, and the Scholarship of Teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 27(1), 5–23.

Revell, A., & Wainwright, E. (2009). What Makes Lectures "Unmissable"? Insights into Teaching Excellence and Active Learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(2), 209–223.

Shephard, K., Harland, T., Stein, S., & Tidswell, T. (2011). Preparing an Application for a Higher-Education Teaching-Excellence Award: Whose Foot Fits Cinderella's Shoe? Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(1), 47–56.

Skelton, A. (2004). Understanding "Teaching Excellence" in Higher Education: A Critical Evaluation of the National Teaching Fellowships Scheme. Studies in Higher Education, 29(4), 451–468.

Williams, R. (2011). The Long Revolution. Parthian.

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