Last year, as I was a returning teacher for one of the programmes where I teach, my co-teachers and I were given a monetary bonus. My co-teachers come from all over the world and hence the money meant different things to different people. For some, it was a small amount while for others, it was a sizeable sum. For me, it was enough to take my sisters on a short trip for a few days. The bonus served to recognize my willingness to stay with the organization and in some ways an appreciation for the teacher I had been. The tangible reward came in after my being in the education sector and engaging with students for more than a decade. In my years of working as an educator, I rarely got any tangible rewards. Rewards that I have received over the years have constituted a meal somewhere, an outing or a picnic, and one educational trip to the US. There have been plenty of intangible rewards though, so much so that I cannot even count them. Sometimes, I wonder if these intangible rewards, such as respect, love, students calling me after years have passed to check on my wellbeing, and so forth can be compared to the tangible benefits that I infrequently receive. It is a question I have been thinking about and often there are no clear answers. How can teachers be recognized and made to feel special, and are awards and rewards necessary?
Awards and rewards for teachers
The world of work, for most of us, is filled with monetary rewards. We inhabit a capitalistic world, where a trophy with a prize amount, an annual bonus or a fully paid trip to some scenic locations is part of recognition. In fact, the transactional nature of these jobs makes it unthinkable for it to not have any tangible benefits attached to it. In the case of teaching though, especially in India, tangible rewards or awards for teachers is often frowned upon and only intangible rewards are meant for them. There are several reasons why I think this happens. Teaching is considered a noble profession and imparting knowledge for rewards other than the students’ gain seems like it dilutes the very act of educating. The sole gain for a teacher should be the flourish of their students. They must be recognized as selfless founts of knowledge. If a teacher’s objective is corrupted by material ambitions than it is possible that the quality of knowledge might be compromised too.
Secondly, it is possible that this aversion to awards and rewards, for teachers, stems from the casteist origins of education. Historically, teaching was a vocation of those who belonged to the upper castes, who rejected materialism. Hence, whatever little a teacher received – largely rations or the success of the student was considered enough because what really mattered was their reputation. Finally, most schools and boards, have come to make us believe that they have little money to spare. An extra spend on a reward or award seems too much for the cash-strapped institution, hence recognition is provided in other ways – a teacher’s day card or frequent events. However, although bonuses and other material rewards and awards for teachers is fraught with multiple positions, there have been some awards instituted for teachers and it might help to assess if these have made any difference for teachers and the teaching community at large.
Teacher Recognition: What are some ways?
Teachers have different opinions on recognition in the teaching profession. Almost all teachers believe that recognition is important, while awards are just a sweet addition. Giselle D’Souza who has been an educator for 24 years has never needed an award to feel motivated. As someone who has been an achiever right since school, her father instilled humility as well as the belief in her that ‘who you are is more important than what you achieve’. For Ms D’Souza, currently Assistant Professor at St Theresa’s Institute of Education in Mumbai, the Best Teacher Educator Award by the National Council for Teacher Education, Government of India, came after 19 years of being in the field. She says, “I never felt like I needed any award to help me get motivated as ensuring my students are happy and thriving is something that motivates me.” However, the award did make her feel that it provided some form of recognition and appreciation for all the efforts that teachers, in general, put in teaching. Joanna Sundharam, who was also one of the toppers of CENTA’s Teacher Professional Olympiad’s (TPO) in 2016, when she was one of the founders of Sunshine Schools in Delhi, was definitely thrilled on not only receiving the award but also on seeing her photograph in a newspaper. She too was motivated and felt like the award had provided an incentive for other teachers too. Sundharam’s reward, which featured in a newspaper with her photo, ‘changed the game’ as for a lot of people, it served as a visual cue of her achievement and they remembered it for a long time. Gitanjali Pillai, who teaches at Symbiosis International School, Pune, agrees that recognition of teachers with awards is a welcome step and it can also create a ripple effect, where other teachers who have not won an award, can see that it is achievable and can strive towards it. Intangible rewards such as opportunities for taking a workshop or training programmes for peers can also be an intangible but valuable reward, which cements the teachers’ credibility and raises their status.
Awards and rewards, although not a must for some teachers, as we see in the case of Ms D’Souza, do serve to recognize the efforts of teachers. In some cases, some of the awards, like the one presented by the Government of India, or even other private bodies, come with a cash prize. Some teachers, could find these cash prizes motivating too, D’Souza says. The Global Teacher Prize, is one such prize for educators, instituted by the Varkey Foundation. The highly coveted prize, is accompanied by USD 1 million as a gift, which is roughly 7 crores in Indian rupees. Most of the winners of this prize, tend to be educators who are running some programme of their own. The prize money, allows them to then, start their own organizations and in many cases, leave the classroom. Can a prize that encourages teachers to leave the classroom be called a ‘teacher’ prize? A teacher who has been teaching in a Bengaluru-based school, cautions us against these external motivators. “One needs to be very skeptical of prizes that are instituted by business persons and ask, what kind of teaching are they rewarding?” Therefore, although these prizes are valued, one must look at some deeper questions that accompany them. If the aim of these prizes is recognition and improving motivation of teachers, we need to explore if there are other ways to do it. There are so many teachers, while the winners of awards can be few, which can result in competition in a profession that benefits by collaboration. Recognition for teachers is definitely a welcome step, but we need to consider other accessible and equitable ways to recognize all teachers apart from awards and prizes.
Awards and rewards, some lingering questions
When one receives an award or reward, teachers often feel like they need to share it with others. This is a common practice at award ceremonies everywhere, where the awards are dedicated to teams and communities. This might not be the case, when the recognition is an intangible one. For example, a heartwarming message for a specific teacher by a student, often tends to be highly individualized owing to the personal nature of the gesture. In tangible awards, however, in some cases, teachers have gone the extra mile to literally share the award with others. Ranjitsinh Disale, the winner of the Global Teacher Prize in 2020, shared half of his prize money with other finalists in the contest. Sundharam, as she was one of the leaders of the schools, where she was working at the time of receiving the prize, considered instituting a similar prize in her school. However, Sundharam wondered how the criteria for selection can become fairer. “If the criterion for the award is students’ past performance or scores, we can have teachers who might game the system to win the prize.” Gaming the system, is something that one cannot do in case of intangible systems of recognition. In fact, some of the teachers were also curious about the CENTA TPO prize and wondered how success at a written test can be the criterion for a teaching award, with no practical teaching being considered, says Sundharam. Sharing the prize with others, therefore, raised other questions regarding fairness and accessibility, which would not have been the case if the process of recognition for all teachers would be an end of year meal, for example, a somewhat intangible reward.
D’Souza also shares that for the National award, teachers are expected to apply. D’Souza was hesitant at first, as she strongly felt like she did not need an award to feel validated or to increase her credibility. Her colleagues began to force her to apply and she did, which landed her the prize. D’Souza’s example, does prompt the question of, how one can ensure that the really good and worthy teachers apply to these prizes. Several people who are the best candidates for awards, often are reluctant to apply for them because of their principles. Some might say that their work speaks for itself and others might find applying to be considered a demeaning exercise. The senior teacher from Bengaluru says, “The Nobel Prize Committee, for example, does not require applications from potential laureates. The fantastic work of these potential Nobel candidates becomes impossible to ignore and they have to be nominated by qualified nominators for the prize. Why can’t teachers then be nominated for such prizes? This process will ensure even the reluctant ones get a chance to be recognized”. However, the process of nomination by others, also raises several questions of fairness. Biases of nominators might lead them to recognize only certain kinds of teaching and teachers as exceptional and lead to the exclusion of others. Pillai says that, in such cases, the onus then should be placed on the committee of nominators to justify why the prize was given to a specific teacher. This can address questions of unfairness.
Finally, do material rewards dilute the value of intangible rewards that teaching is so closely related to? D’Souza vehemently disagrees. “I will trade my national award any day for their [students] love and reverence. The way they think of me, look at me – I celebrate teacher’s day every day!” The senior teacher, points out that due to the nature of society, it can be difficult to separate the value of tangible and intangible rewards. “Perhaps, you might ask me to conduct a workshop for other teachers, as a recognition of my abilities. You are making more demands on my time, which I am already pressed for. At such times, many teachers, like me, agree to do the workshop, because we believe it is our vocation, and we are not guided by tangible and transactional concerns. But if you value me, why wouldn’t you pay me?”
The conversation with teachers on building recognition and the place of awards and rewards, has revealed that some form of recognition is a must for teachers. As a demanding profession, there is so much that goes unnoticed, and hence some form of recognition can help. Awards and rewards, definitely have a place in some teachers’ lives, while for others it might not be that necessary. And because all teachers agree that recognition is important, maybe a lesson for all of us, as students, family members, school leaders or policy makers, would be to continuously find ways to recognize the value that teachers bring to our lives, in whichever way we might think fit.
The author is the Co-founder and Director of InteGRAL, a gender focused research and consulting firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.