Awards teacher vilified

20th October 2006 at 01:00
The first Scottish teacher to win one of the UK teaching awards has become an early victim of the Scottish "tall poppy" syndrome.

Within hours of Susan Ward being crowned the UK's most outstanding new teacher of the year, other teachers were debating online the pros and cons of "best teacher" awards, accusing them of making other teachers feel like "crap".

The 26-year-old P1 teacher at Juniper Green Primary in Balerno, Edinburgh, was praised by the judges for her innovative use of puppetry and music to motivate pupils and consolidate their learning. They also commented that during her probation teaching P2 last year, her class's attainment results were well ahead of expectations. She attributed this in part to her participation in a personal learning planning pilot scheme in her school cluster.

But the publicity surrounding her win has sparked a fresh debate over "gongs" for teachers, which reinforces concerns that Scots are held back by low self-esteem and confidence.

In an article in this week's TESS (page 19), Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, criticises Scotland's "put-down culture" where there is still "a fair amount of harsh, unconstructive criticism dished out to young people".

Next week, at the invitation of her centre, Martin Seligman, leader of the positive psychology movement, will address a conference on how to help young people develop realistic optimism, resilience and a well-founded belief in their abilities.

David Eaglesham, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers'

Association, said the Scottish psyche, with its sense of "obliged humility", had difficulties with the idea of selecting one individual as "the best". He said he backed the Scottish Executive's new "Celebrating Success" initiative, which will be launched on St Andrew's Day to showcase schools' successes, with The TESS as media partner. His union had never endorsed the Teaching Awards, set up six years ago by the film-maker Lord Puttnam, as English teaching unions had.

Mr Eaglesham's criticism of what he believes is the introduction of competition between teachers and schools has found echoes in The TESS online staffroom.

One teacher, describing Sunday's televised awards as a "vomit-inducing news item", wrote: "Surely the most important aspect of this is that none of these practices are particularly remarkable".

Another commented: "I don't think there should be 'best teacher' awards because it makes other teachers out there who're quietly doing a good job feel crap because they haven't won anything."

Mrs Ward was originally nominated for the probationer section of the Scottish Education Awards, which are backed by the Scottish Executive and the Daily Record, by her school's principal teacher, Paul Ewing, as soon as he saw her P2 pupils dancing to the James Brown hit "I Feel Good". After winning the Scottish award, she was put forward for the UK awards.

She responded to the critical online comments, saying: "To be insulted and judged, based on a two-minute edited news report, on a site dedicated to promoting positive communication between teaching professionals has saddened me deeply."

"I have not now, nor ever, made assertions about being 'unique' or 'original' in my teaching. Quite the reverse: some of the ideas and practices I use are adapted from things teachers were doing when I was at primary school.

"I have also made clear from the start that I do not consider myself 'exceptional'; I can name a dozen teachers who are as committed as me and deserve to be recognised."

Mrs Ward said she hoped to use the title to highlight and promote "the brilliant teaching in Scottish schools and bring some much-deserved recognition to our teachers. That can't be a bad thing?"

Karen Noble, headteacher, said she was bowled over by Mrs Ward's competence when she observed her first lessons: "She uses puppets and music and in new ways to help the children recap on their learning. They make up songs to remember things they have learned and she encourages their creativity so that they are involved in all aspects of their learning.

"She's just what we need. If she's the future of Scottish education, then it's a very bright future."

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