Recognizing and Valuing Teaching at UofT

By Pam Gravestock, PhD, Associate Director, CTSI

I recently had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Excellence in Teaching reception, honouring faculty who have received teaching awards over the past year.  Hosted by Vice-President and Provost, Cheryl Regehr, this event recognized the accomplishments of our great teachers – those who have received internal awards, such as the Faculty of Arts & Science Outstanding Teaching Award, the Early Career Teaching Award in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, and the President’s Teaching Award, along with recipients of external awards such as the OCUFA Teaching Awardand the Alan Blizzard. As Provost Regehr noted in her opening remarks to those gathered, “Collectively, you exemplify ongoing innovation in knowledge building and sharing.  You exemplify a passion for helping students expand their horizons and discover new ways of thinking.”

This is something I know first hand. Each and every day, I have the opportunity to learn about the teaching excellence of our faculty and I am constantly amazed at the commitment, care and attention that faculty, at all levels of their careers, put into ensuring our students have meaningful and valuable learning experiences. One of the most enriching aspects of my portfolio involves a focus on teaching awards. For more than a decade, I have been engaged with preparing award nomination files for internal and external awards – giving me a window into the contributions our great teachers have made and continue to make.

At U o fT, our highest honour for teaching is the President’s Teaching Award (PTA). Established in 2006, it recognizes excellence in teaching and educational leadership. Recipients become Teaching Academy members and serve in an advisory capacity to the President, Provost and CTSI.  As of 2014, the Academy includes 35 members from both the tenure and teaching stream, representing a wide range of disciplines, including Chemistry, Computer Science, English, Engineering, History, Education, Pharmacy, Medicine, Women & Gender Studies, Geography, and so on.

Since the inception of the PTA, Academy members have been coming together to collaborate on initiatives such as Large Class Teaching modules, the Teaching Matters articles (published with U of T’s Bulletin), and on pedagogical and educational research.  They have served as ambassadors of great teaching within our institution and beyond – speaking at convocations, recruitment events, and at local, national and international conferences, including U of T’s Teaching & Learning Symposium.

While some have called into question the benefit of teaching awards (Aron, Aucott & Papp, 2000; Chism, 2006; Evans, 2005), arguing that they hinder academic careers, particularly in research-intensive universities, or that they are merely awarded based on popularity – I wholeheartedly disagree. I have seen the evidence from students who speak to the impact that faculty have had on their university experience – the passion that instructors bring to their discipline or the opportunities for engagement in research that has spurred an undergraduate to continue on to graduate school, the mentorship provided to graduate students as they move toward and eventually step into their own professional careers, or the integration of an inclusive teaching approach that helps a student meet their learning goals.

To dismiss the importance of teaching awards devalues the voices of our students who have been the beneficiary of great teaching. Moreover, the absence of such awards can signal that institutions don’t value teaching.  At U of T, we have a wealth of superb teachers and a multitude of ways to acknowledge the significant impact they have in the “classroom” (be it in a room on campus, in an online environment, in a lab, or in the field) and at the leadership level (through innovative course and curricular design, initiatives to support and enhance student learning, and so on).

For me, the existence of the PTA and the Academy signals that teaching is not only recognized at U of T but that it is truly valued at all levels.  As Don Boyes, 2014 PTA recipient notes, “The President’s Teaching Award is an incredible honour but, more than that, it shows just how much teaching is valued at the University of Toronto.  I know that the award gave me something to aspire to, and past winners were great role models and a real inspiration to me.  The Teaching Academy provides great leadership to the teaching community and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to the wonderful work done by its members”.

Don and his colleagues in the Academy work to further not only the conversations about teaching within our institution and beyond, but also actively lead and engage in initiatives that advance teaching at U of T.

Nominations for the 2015 President’s Teaching Award are now open – please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the process or if you have a candidate in mind.


2012 TATP Teaching Excellence Award Winners

Congratulations to the following U of T teaching assistants, winners of this year’s award:

Emily Holland, Department of Anthropology
Stefana Gargova, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures
Sara Osenton, Department of East Asian Studies
Abdul Rahman Ayoub,
Department of Mathematics & Computational Sciences

Some nominees worked as a part of a teaching team in large lecture courses or science labs while others led small tutorials or language labs. The only common denominators: the nominees enthusiasm for teaching and the enthusiasm for learning they inspired in their students. Nominators were asked to comment on the TA’s communication and organizational skills, their feedback and knowledge of the course material. In each case, the candidate demonstrated dedication, insight and knowledge in the classroom. As always, the response was extraordinary as so many were willing (and often excited) to share their experiences with teaching assistants at U of T. Many students shared stories about TAs guiding them through difficult material, making the tutorial experience an enjoyable one and encouraging enthusiasm about the subject matter. A common theme we noticed this year, students nominate a TA when they feel their voice is being heard whether in tutorials, during office hours or email.

This year, we received 433 online nominations from students and 48 nominations from faculty. A total of 197 TAs were nominated (from more than 40 departments) with 63 TAs eligible for the short list. Thank you to everyone who took the time to nominate a TA this year. Winners receive a cash prize, certificate and award luncheon in their honour.

For more information on this award—and how you can nominate a TA for next year’s award—please visit

Shortlisted Candidates:
Keira Galway, Faculty of Music
Julia Su, Department of Linguistics
Helen Marshall, Department of English
Lauren Beard, Department of Comparative Literature
Robert Williamson, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Guillaume Barlet, Department of Geology
Sherry Esfahani, Materials Science & Engineering
Danielle DeSouza, Department of Occupational Therapy

TATP Teaching Excellence Award – the Shortlist

It is with great pleasure (and excitement) that we can announce this year’s short list candidates for the 2012 TATP Teaching Excellence Award:

Abdul Abyab, Department of Mathematics & Computational Sciences
Guillaume Barlet, Department of Geology
Lauren Beard, Department of Comparative Literature
Danielle DeSouza, Department of Occupational Therapy
Shaghayegh Esfahani, Materials Science & Engineering
Keira Galway, Faculty of Music
Stefana Gargova, Department of Germanic Languages
Emily Holland, Department of Anthropology
Helen Marshall, Department of English
Sara Osenton, Department of East Asian Studies
Julia Su, Department of Linguistics
Robertson Williamson, Department of Biology

This year, we received 433 online nominations from students and 48 nominations from faculty. A total of 197 TAs were nominated with 63 TAs eligible for the short list.

The TATP Teaching Excellence Award is in it’s 9th year (it was established in 2003 and the first awards were presented in 2004). Recipients of the award receive a certificate, an honorarium and a luncheon in their honour. They also sit on a panel during that year’s TA Day (held before fall term starts) and participate in a Q&A with new (and some returning) TAs at the university. I will admit that every year I worry that no one will have a question for the award winners (and I should admit that I have this fear every time I participate in a Q&A) but every year we have more than enough to fill the allotted time, and then some.

Winners will be announced on Monday, April 30, 2012.

Jen O’Leary, Molecular Genetics & Siyu Liu, Electrical & Computer Engineering
2011 TA Award winners


Reflections on the TA Teaching Excellence Award

For the past eight years, I have had the distinct pleasure of coordinating the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program Teaching Excellence Award. It is always inspiring to read students’ testimonials about teaching assistants who are making a difference in their education. It reminds me of stepping back into the undergraduate classroom (I am taking full advantage of UofT employee benefits by enrolling in classes) and being reminded how intelligent UofT students are – smart, insightful and funny. Much like the 2011 3M Fellows Thank Your Teacher initiative, the TA Award is an opportunity to say thanks but to also offer recognition for a job well done.

(from left to right, 2011 winners William McFadden, Department of History,
Siyu Liu, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering)

Last year we received over 550 nominations (from students and faculty) for TAs – 185 individual TAs were nominated – and this year is looking just as promising. We have almost twice as many nominations as we did this time last year. I certainly don’t want to jinx the number of responses to come but I think we might be heading into a record breaking year. Some of the TAs who make the short-list of candidates receive dozens of nominations from students, others receive only two (the minimum required to be eligible for the short-list). Some TAs are leading multiple tutorials or labs in large survey courses, encountering dozens upon dozens of students, while others lead smaller group sessions, or are working as a Course Instructor. There really isn’t a standard, only good teaching and enthusiasm for the subject matter and sharing that enthusiasm with their students. As one student wrote (in a nomination letter submitted during the short-list stage as all online nominations are anonymous) said about 2008 award winner Chiara Frigeni, Department of Linguistics:

Chiara was constantly encouraging students.  She would find a way to elicit student participation in a manner that didn’t make people feel singled out; rather, she made it fun and enjoyable. She was constantly encouraging, and her passion for course material was unparalleled.

As I have the chance to see the nominations as they come in, I know that this story isn’t unique. We hear from students on all three campuses from a wide range of departments. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times (and will probably say it a thousand times more), enthusiasm counts.

To nominate a TA, please visit the Teaching Excellence Award website.

Thank Your Teacher Today

Do you have a favourite teacher? The one (or maybe more than one) who made the difference in your education? Perhaps it was a different approach to teaching (my grade six teacher, Mr. Zettle, helped me see that learning could be an adventure. He was enthusiastic about every subject and taught us integers by turning the lesson into a murder-mystery. Eight did it, by the way), or opening the door to new materials and ideas (a high school English teacher, Mr. Jonker, asked us to bring in a song and analyze it. Now, I’m not saying that listening to someone’s  analysis of  a Bob Seger song-Night Moves, I believe-was illuminating but we did learn to critically defend our choices. I can’t remember what song I brought in, although a safe bet would be Bruce Springsteen, probably Thunder Road. I would like to blame it on the 80s and living in a small town but that would be wrong. Also, it was the first time that I heard Robyn Hitchcock and that changed my life in a different way). Or a teacher or professor who gave you a wake up call (as Dr. Blanchard did in my 2nd year by reminding us of the importance of coming prepared for tutorials-that we were all in this together).

Carol Rolheiser, Director, CTSI, remembers a high school biology teacher who encouraged her to study science in university. They reconnected years later when she received a surprise fax after her name appeared the Faculty of Education Alumni Magazine.

Yes, it was my high school biology teacher – whom I had not been in touch with for 36 years! I eagerly called him and shared with him the influence he had been in my becoming a teacher. I let him know that the model he had set for me many years ago had helped shape my career. Even though it took 36 years for Dr. Nichol to get feedback from this student, I know it meant the world to him because he told me so.  We continue to maintain our correspondence and share our respective love of learning.

The THANK YOUR TEACHER campaign is an initiative started by the 2011 3M National Teaching Fellows, in conjunction with the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Throughout this week, ads will appear in Canadian newspapers of 3M winners (please see Nick Mount‘s entry below) thanking teachers who have encouraged, challenged and inspired them. The goal of the campaign is not to simply highlight stories from award winning teachers but to hear from YOU. Much of the media of late has focused on the negative when discussing teaching, whether K-12 or higher ed, and this is an opportunity to remind, and remember, all those times and all those people who have had a positive influence on our lives.

Submit your story to THANK YOUR TEACHER

CTSI: the view from the 7th floor

With the start of the new year, we have settled in our new, albeit temporary, home. Our space on the 4th floor of Robarts is under renovation – our office has grown considerably over the last few years with the amalgamation of offices (Office of Teaching Advancement, Teaching Assistants’ Training Program and Resource Centre for Academic Technology) in 2009 and the addition of staff and services – so we are residing on the 7th floor of the library until July 2012.

We packed up our old space just before the holidays and many of us felt a little sad. There were no actual tears (at least not that I know of) but it was hard to say goodbye.

Throughout the time we occupied the space (as individual offices then one big pedagogical family), we enjoyed countless workshops and events, facilitated 6 Teaching & Learning symposia and many conferences, supported the implementation of the UofT portal (Blackboard) and training for instructors, graduate students and staff, supported teaching award files and facilitated the TATP Teaching Excellence Award and met with many, many instructors and graduate students on a number of teaching related issues and questions.

Thankfully, we’ve landed in a space that allows us to continue this pace and there will be no break in our schedule or programming. The one drawback is that we don’t have a seminar rooms right next door that we can use for workshops and training but the upside is that we can explore buildings and rooms around campus with our winter 2012 workshop series. And personally, I rather like being surrounded by old card catalogues and library stacks. It’s comforting. Also, we have space for the desktop computer archive so I know that we are home.

To reach our office, take the #4 elevator from the 2nd floor of Robarts and follow the signs. All of our other contact information remains the same.

To reach an individual staff member, please visit the CTSI contact page.

Cut down on waste, not trees!

Submitted by Elah Feder – Project Coordinator, Sustainability Office, UofT

A few years ago, a student researcher calculated U of T uses about 10 million sheets of paper each year. That’s just in first and second year courses on St. George campus, and it doesn’t include all the textbooks we use each year, so the real total is much higher.

Paper has its place, and we’re not suggesting everyone needs to go electronic, but we do think there are some great opportunities to cut down on waste. The U of T Green Courses program recognizes those instructors who have made an effort to do so.

So far, over 100 courses have been recognized for choosing basic practices like double-siding, posting lecture slides in compact forms, and choosing environmentally-friendly paper for their course readers.

The Sustainability Office is now accepting applications for spring semester courses. Learn more about the program and download the self-assessment form at

Breakdown of paper use in first and second year courses,
excluding textbooks, based on research by Yi-an Chen.

A Focus on Faculty

As a part of the Student-Faculty Interaction initiative – highlighting faculty who implement alternative methods to engage with students – we (CTSI) have started a Focus on Faculty section on our website. Our first profiles are of two President’s Teaching Award winners: Barbara Murck, Department of Geography (UTM) and Andy Dicks, Department of Chemistry.

Murck discusses her online office hours – affectionately known as “bunny slipper” meetings – that she holds for her large first year class. She uses the collaboration tool in the UofT Portal and finds that these chats supplement the course material rather than replace it.  It also provides a personal touch and (despite being online) helps students feel comfortable when approaching her with a question or idea.

Dicks provides Research Opportunities (ROP) for chemistry students to, among other things, design experiments for 2nd and 3rd year courses. His goal is to involve students in pedagogical work while ensuring that his course material is always relevant and engaging. These projects have been enormously successful and led to publications in academic journals. Dicks also enjoys informing students an experiment was designed by a fellow undergraduate.

Please visit our Focus on Faculty section to learn more about these initiatives. If you have any stories to share or other initiatives you know of please let us know.