Are awards for teachers 'nonsense on stilts' or is there a real need to give recognition to a profession that is constantly under attack? Gerald Haigh reflects on the trend in morale-boosting initiatives, while overleaf 'TES Friday magazine' heralds the new academic year with a roll-call of all the nominees and winners of our Bouquet of the Week
Recently I received a book of memories by a retired teacher with the title I Did It My Way - in the days when teaching was a joy. This idea, that there was once a more golden time, with less paperwork, better-behaved children and more supportive inspectors is embedded in many staffrooms. Perhaps there is a mythical element to it all, but there is no doubt that the profession has been put upon in recent years in a way that cries out for some kind of restitution.
Nobody argues about the need to improve teacher morale through better funding and resources. What, though, of other initiatives, such as the Government's 1999 Teaching Awards and the more modest but equally well-meant Bouquet of the Week in TES Friday?
Doubts are inevitable - a correspondent to The TES in July called the Government's award "nonsense on stilts" - but there are fewer objections to the idea of teaching "Oscars" than many expected.
The key, surely, lies partly in the obvious sincerity of Lord Puttnam, the man behind the scheme, who is transparently genuine in his admiration of what teachers achieve.
The Bouquet of the Week is given in the same spirit of real appreciation - the letters of recommendation tell of super-human endeavour in looking after and educating Britain's children. A bunch of flowers seems a modest response, and yet the excitement that even this generates demonstrates just how much teachers and others who work in schools really do like some kind of recognition.
Such awards are most effective when they are given for clearly stated professional achievements, by people who know what they are talking about. In their own schools, teachers think little of the casual "keep up the good work" slap on the back. What they want is recognition of specific success with particular groups and individuals.
The same must apply in the bigger arena. The "Teacher of the Year" award in the US, for example, is founded in classroom professionalism, and the chosen teacher at each level (school district, state, nation) is seen as a hard-working ambassador for the profession as a whole. Given this attitude, and the fact that he or she has the ear of the President, however briefly, and a spot on national television, the award becomes not just an accolade but an opportunity to speak up for the concerns of all classroom workers.
Sharon Draper, last year's US National Teacher of the Year, had this advice for those contemplating a similar British award: "If it's looked on as a responsibility, and the teacher is a spokesperson for all the teachers in the country, then teachers will support it."
Thus, the Bouquet of the Week, for example, is always for "going the extra mile" within the terms of the recommended person's own responsibilities. Andy Blackwood, Year 11 tutor at Budmouth Technology College in Weymouth, has pastoral responsibility for pupils at a crucial stage in their schooling. Pupil Hannah Jones, though, recommended him not just for doing that job but for the extra qualities of humanity and understanding which he brings to it. "Without him, I don't think I'd have made it through the past two years," she wrote.
Similarly, though a primary deputy is expected to be something of a role model for other teachers, not all are as good at the job as Joy Hoban, deputy head at Firs Junior in Castle Bromwich. "Just watching her teach and manage children is an educational experience in itself," wrote one of her colleagues.
The same applies to other awards. Last year's Disney Channel Teacher of the Year, Lynda Roberts of Goodnestone Primary in Kent, was recognised for her work with Josie Russell, the survivor of a brutal attack in which her sister and mother were murdered.
The story itself was high profile and much reported, but the recognition was for the remarkably detailed professional work - hardly mentioned in the popular press - carried out by Lynda Roberts, with others, to help Josie to recover.
An award for supply teachers, given by the Birmingham agency Quality Teachers, also recognises professional excellence. A Birmingham primary head said of this year's winner Simon Rawbone: "He is always looking for new ways of enhancing the everyday working of his class."
An award is particularly welcome and appropriate when it also reflects well on the school by bringing forward a particularly good example of the whole school's approach. This means the nominated teacher can use the award to publicise the team's achievements.
Evidence for this is seen in the way that teachers put forward for the Bouquet of the Week invariably mention the support of others. Moira Smith, an 'inspirational" nursery teacher at Harleeshill Primary in Lanarkshire, was "swift to share the credit with her 'excellent, highly-motivated' team of nursery teachers." Early years teacher Carolyn Forsyth of Stanley Infants School in Richmond, Surrey - nominated by a parent for the tireless patience she showed in helping her son - praised her support assistants, other teachers and the local education authority. Primary music co-ordinator Fiona Reeve of Hurtshead Infants School in Cheadle, said: "I am lucky to teach in a super school where the enthusiasm and commitment of the teachers just rubs off on the children."
In their turn, headteachers may build on the award by highlighting this link between the individual's work and the whole school approach. Thus Fiona Reeve's headteacher used the opportunity to point out that music is an essential feature in the school, valued by the community and recognised by OFSTED.
There is clearly a fine balance here - individuals have to have the space and the opportunity to give credit to the team; they, in turn, should be given the chance to accept some of the glory, however modestly.
This balance is particularly important in the British system, set as it is against a national culture which tends to play down individual success. Slowness to recognise that individual achievement reflects on the whole school is shown by the fact that the Bouquet of the Week attracts relatively few nominations from secondary schools.
In the secondary community, with its larger departmental structure, perhaps it becomes more difficult to perceive an individual teacher's particular extra strengths and to see him or her in the context of what the school as a whole is trying to do.
For similar reasons, some schools obviously find it easier to nominate for the Bouquet of the Week those people whose contribution is unique - the caretaker, the secretary, a parent volunteer.
In the end, though, the forthright comment on this subject of Janet Bass of the American Association of Teachers is probably right. "There's nothing wrong with celebrating really fine teaching. Teachers work in teams, but some people bring more to the team than others. You can have five terrific movies nominated for the Oscars' Best Picture category, but only one gets chosen. That's the way it is in this country."
If teachers are to get the recognition they deserve, that's the way it needs to be here, too.
* If you want to nominate a staff member for our Bouquet of the Week, send your nomination - with reasons why -on a postcard to Sarah Bayliss, 'TESFriday magazine', Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.
* Information packs on the Government's 1999 Teaching Awards will be sent to all state, grant-maintained and independent schools in England early this month. Closing date for nominations is December 11. Each of the 150 regional winners will receive cash awards for their schools. At national level, there will be 32 finalists, eight of whom will go on to be named national winners, receiving up to pound;20,000 for their schools. More information from the Teaching Awards Company. Tel: 0171 463 2146
BOUQUET ROLL OF HONOUR, PAGE 6