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.