Teacher of the Year: Popularity Contest or Tall Poppy Syndrome?

My opinion on various teacher recognition programs has always been clear and simple: Teachers in America get so little in the way of acknowledgement and perks that every single teacher honored for their excellent work richly deserves the spotlight and whatever rewards come with it.

Teaching, as Lee Shulman famously noted, is impossible. And yet millions of teachers get up every morning and head off to do critical work that benefits our communities–and is also underpaid, misunderstood, phenomenally challenging and complex. If any of them get a public pat on the back, or a tangible bonus, it’s deserved. No question.

So I was surprised to see an article [pay wall] in Education Week, generally considered the educational equivalent of the Gray Lady, with the headline The National Teacher of the Year Award: A ‘Call to Service’ or a ‘Popularity Contest’? :

Past finalists and honorees have said the process of being considered for National Teacher of the Year was a humbling experience that allowed them to advocate for the profession they love. It’s not meant to elevate some teachers at the expense of others, they said, but rather allow them to represent the needs of teachers and students on a national level.

But, but, but—when the five finalists for this year’s National Teacher of the Year award were posted on EdWeek’s Facebook page, there was a flurry of negative comments—over 200, last I checked, beginning with the snark about Teacher of the Year programs being a popularity contest. There was some defense of the National Teacher of the Year program, but the bulk of the comments might be summarized as suspicious, even resentful, of teachers who are singled out for recognition.

Comments clustered around three assertions:

  • Competitions pit teachers against each other. This is a uniquely ‘teacher thing’—the desire to build community and work together is central to running a productive classroom. If you’ve ever been to a teacher award banquet or ceremony, you’ll notice that honored teachers cross the stage humbly, heads down, then “share” the honor with their colleagues and students, if they get to make remarks. Compare that to, say, realtors being rewarded for millions of dollars in sales—pumping their trophy, and promising that next year’s sales will be even higher. The metrics of good teaching are—and absolutely should be—personal and site-specific, unlike other careers where it’s easy to say who is “best.” There were also some spiteful comments of the “I can’t believe they picked this lousy teacher I know” variety.
  • Not all teachers have access to Teacher of the Year or similar awards. There were lots of remarks about the work that teachers needed to do to be considered for an award—papers to write, interviews to schedule, evidence to assemble. All of this takes away from being awesome in the classroom (true). In addition, teachers’ workplace conditions are vastly dissimilar. Some teachers have adequate resources and students whose families have helped them become goal-oriented. Other teachers have none of these things, but do their best anyway. How could that be fair, when assessing a teacher’s impact and outcomes?
  • All teachers are Teacher of the Year for someone. I absolutely agree that all teachers deserve more—lots more—than having one of their colleagues plucked out for a certificate or prize. I concur that teachers everywhere are grossly underpaid for the complexity and importance of the work they do, and—especially these days—unfairly beleaguered. But I’m not sure if this means that outstanding teachers (because there are outstanding teachers) should never be identified and feted. This feels like Tall Poppy Syndrome.

I am interested in all of this because I was Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, in 1993. I am also a National Board Certified Teacher—two very different, but credible teaching awards. I have seen teacher award programs from the inside, and heard all the remarks about defining exceptional teaching made on EdWeek’s Facebook article—some directed at me, of course.

My take: The single most gratifying—and humbling—accolade was being named Teacher of the Year in my medium-sized school district, where I was nominated by another teacher, where my work with students was well-known, and where I was surrounded by highly skilled and supportive colleagues.

Being named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, by contrast, sort of dropped from the sky. I didn’t seek it (beyond writing and submitting the application, at the urging of my superintendent), and was dumfounded and a little dismayed when I actually won.

Few people understand how different “Teacher of the Year” programs are, district to district and state to state. In some buildings, the same teacher can be named year after year and it does feel like a competition. In some states, the TOY is released from teaching for an entire year, to travel and speak. Other states have significant perks: Leased cars. A seat on the State Board of Education. A wardrobe allowance, since the Teacher of the Year shouldn’t keynote conferences in her denim jumper.

During the year I served as TOY, I was also working full-time, at my regular job teaching 320 middle school band students. The district found (and paid for) subs for days when I had TOY responsibilities, which meant that frequently, teachers in my building were asked to sub when I had to leave early to speak at a banquet, or drive across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula for a workshop. I took every request that I could manage, often paying my own mileage and expenses.

I was out of the classroom 37 days. It was hard on my students—and even harder on my family. I had two small children and my wonderful husband picked up mountains of slack. It was exhausting, and I was glad when it was over. My superintendent put up a green and white road sign at the entrance to the village: Home of Nancy Flanagan, Michigan Teacher of the Year, 1993. Later, my husband retrieved that sign from a dumpster behind the school’s bus garage. C’est la vie.

During that time, I heard lots of sarcastic “famous teacher” remarks—and a few questioning whether I was actually TOY material. Five years later, I sat for National Board Certification, because I wanted to prove that I was indeed an accomplished teacher–to put a metric on the title, to provide evidence, a bona fide seal of approval. It was a great (and similarly exhausting) experience, but it’s worth noting that National Board Certified Teachers hear many of the same remarks about maybe being too big for their teacher britches.

By far the best part of being Michigan Teacher of the Year, however, came in the years after 1993. TOYs are sort of like Jimmy Carter—once you’re out of office, the stress subsides and the opportunities to do good work are endless. I got a gig at Education Week as a teacher-blogger. I discussed professional development on C-Span at the National Governors Association Conference.  I had interesting interactions with Michigan Governors.  I still got to teach.

And—I met incredible people, most of whom are educators. That’s the perk that all teachers should have—the conviction that the nation is filled with good teachers, plus the opportunity to exchange ideas and inspirations, professional goals and camaraderie, all of which is available to any teacher willing to reach out and start a conversation on social media.

I wish all of this year’s awardees the best.


  1. Very thought-provoking analysis. Me and my friends watched the teachers who were politically connected get the teacher of the year award for many years. We decided to see if we could mount a campaign and get one of us the award. It worked. Administrators consistently overlooked the best teachers and used favoritism and cronyism in their judgment. I have no reason to believe that is not continuing in my local school district. It’s a shame. Maybe it should just be a peer nomination?

    Liked by 1 person


    1. Thanks for your comment. It illustrates a couple of things. First, that what happens in one building/district/state is not the way it works elsewhere. In my district, the TOY was chosen by a panel of *teachers* from across the K-12 district (7 buildings, about 275 teachers). Anyone could nominate a teacher, by filling out a simple form, and a diverse group of teachers chose a winner. Admins had nothing to do with it–but I know they do in other places. In some states, I know, the teachers’ union sponsors the state program (which costs money) so they organize the selection process.

      The other thing is this: if you mounted a campaign in favor of a particular teacher, and that teacher won, you might be able to devise a much better way to select TOYs and make it stick. Simply writing a paragraph or two about the purpose of highlighting good teaching, and what a TOY could do (mentor? curriculum development? lead professional learning?) might change everything for you. Good luck.



  2. Sounds like these (well deserved) accolades may end up just giving someone the chance to work twice as hard. I suspect, as you say, that the dynamics of individual awards can require very different inputs/skill sets. I got named teacher of the year by the students at my first gig. It was strictly a popularity contest. I certainly was far from a skilled professional at that point, but the kids knew I cared. Years later, I remember talking to a teacher, who was truly a master teacher, talking about a young colleague asking to use her videos of the program she had created. This young teacher was going to be taking over, but was planning on presenting this material as her own at a conference. Brown nosing had never been in this master teacher’s lexicon, and damned if she was going to give this upstart access to her work. I’m sure much of the snark comes from people who have witnessed a similar incident. I wonder if people who win the Nobel Prize face similar criticism.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. I was at a conference once, in a workshop led by someone from another state, that I’d never met, and she was presenting my work (a set of case studies) as her own. Afterward, I asked where she got the material, and she named an organization that does PD work. I contacted them (this was a body of work, not a single worksheet or example–I know those get shared frequently). They claimed not to know where the work came from. And this was before everybody was sharing everything via social media and Share My Lesson. I soothed myself by saying that it must have been good stuff, if it was being stolen and re-stolen. It’s kind of the Teachers’ Dilemma: do you want your stuff to get out there and used by kids–or do you want to keep it in a cardboard box in your garage for the rest of your life? (which is where all my good stuff now is)

      And you’re right about working twice as hard.



  3. I am currently working on a novel about a fictional school and those engaged with it. What this exercise has reinforced is the reality that I really cared about the students and staff I served. I was nominated for TOY in Charlotte, NC in 1993. I had no idea what I was in for when I went to the district interview. I found the competitive nature of the honor off-putting. However, it was an honor to be nominated by the people who worked with me. I don’t believe honor and fame are significant forces for most of us in the school house. It’s nice to be recognized, but what I would really like is to be valued. All of the perks from the honor do nothing in regard to the resources we need to doo our work well. I did the work because I took “loving my neighbor” seriously. I couldn’t receive a more significant reward than the relationships that I will carry with me the rest of my life.



    1. Best of luck with your novel–very few authors get schools and teaching right, but having been a teacher would be an enormous help. You can’t understand teaching unless you’ve done it, and done it well.

      Again–every state and district use different methods and measures to select a Teacher of the Year, so it’s hard to compare–but I agree that any kind of competition is off-putting to most teachers. I also agree that for most teachers, the best recognition would be resources to support the work, beginning with two things: a professional salary and professional autonomy.

      Back in the day (like the 90s), lots of us envied NC teachers because you had a governor (Jim Hunt) who supported the professionalization of teaching. It may not have seemed like that to those teaching there, but he had a national reputation for being interested in skilled and humanistic teaching.

      Thanks for your comment.



      1. In the early 1990s it felt like we were making progress in education in NC, but the development of legislation called the “ABCs” codified high stakes testing in the middle of the decade and later became one of the models for NCLB. Teachers received “bonuses” for expected or high growth until the Great Recession convinced lawmakers it was too expensive and stopped paying teachers that money. It was quite the boondoggle that excluded about half of the teachers in the state. Yes, Governor Hunt wanted to make the schools better, but he kept listening to the hierarchy rather than the practitioners. In 2010 the legislature became Republican and pro-privatization. The struggles now are profound.

        Liked by 1 person

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