Awards: Do they really motivate teachers?

March 2014


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JUDE BARBACK considers whether the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards will help to raise student achievement as intended.

Whenever my kids bring home certificates, they get placed proudly on the door of the refrigerator, copious magnets holding them in place; an in-your-face reminder of exactly how clever they are.

I used to get certificates to put on the fridge door, once upon a time. I miss getting certificates. I need certificates.

I’m willing to bet most of us crave some form of recognition that we’re doing a good job. A praising email, a kind word, or simply (and rather sadly) a lack of negative feedback are all welcomed in the absence of trophies and certificates that once defined our excellence.

Perhaps that’s why there is some excitement around the Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards, announced late last year. There are four main award categories – excellence in governing, leading, teaching and learning, and engaging. The winning group or partnership of each category is to receive $20,000, along with professional development opportunities, with the group that has had the most impact on raising student achievement to receive the Supreme Award of $30,000.

The words ‘lift achievement’ (or versions of) feature many times in the awards’ description and leave the sector in no doubt as to the Government’s motivation behind the awards.

While a system lift is not likely to be achieved by throwing prize money at it, an incentive certainly can’t hurt.

If we look at other awards, albeit ones for individuals rather than groups, it is interesting, if not surprising, to note that the recipients believe awards are a source of motivation to teachers.

Kiri Smith, who received a TeachNZ Secondary Teacher Study Award, believes awards help to motivate other teachers into being proactive and thinking about their own practice.

“The study awards are motivating and inspiring. It gives teachers the opportunity to look at themselves in their practice and profession. It also is a reminder to teachers that good teachers are worth keeping. It ... makes them feel that if it can happen to you, it could happen to them as well.”

Smith sees the study awards as opportunities for teachers to enhance their careers and their own learning.

“Teachers can only go so far in the pay scale, unless they take on admin roles. So what happens to all those great teachers that don’t want that for themselves, who only want to teach, who also want to inquire into their own teaching and learning?”

Fenella Colyer, head of physics at Manurewa High School, was the winner of the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize last year. Colyer says winning the award certainly gave a sense of pride at her school.

“It raises the overall profile and allows colleagues to see that you don’t have to be in a decile 10 to do well in education.

“It makes the students proud and gives them faith in their school when they see staff doing well. In their eyes, if one teacher does well, then that rubs off on the rest of the staff – they tend to generalise it to ‘we have some good teachers here’. Also, if staff can set an example of hard work, success, achievement, it sets the tone for the students to do the same.”

However, Colyer believes most teachers are not motivated by prizes or money, rather by the sense of reward when seeing a failing student who is now passing, or by peer recognition.

“To me, the prize is more of a token of appreciation than a reward. I see it as a big thank you to those who go the extra mile over the years. So, while we don’t work for a reward, it is nice to be appreciated.”

Research out of Harvard Business School suggests that awards need to be carefully implemented if they are to be effective. Professor Ian Larkin, who headed the study, said that awards shouldn’t be used to reward basic job expectations, rather people who have gone the extra mile. He also says awards are more effective when they recognise good behaviour in the past rather than going forward.

In the context of this research, the new Prime Minister’s Education Excellence Awards appear to fit the bill.

That the awards are for groups or partnerships adds to the sense of collaborative effort that is needed to achieve change and improvement in our education system.

“In this way, the awards aim to raise awareness and understanding that education improvement and excellence is broader than the activity of a teacher in a classroom – it involves leadership and community effort as well,” says Di Davies of TeachNZ.

A $20,000 cheque is going to bring considerably more satisfaction than a certificate on the fridge, but the notion is the same. We all need recognition and appreciation – teachers are no exception.

Entries for the Awards close on 31 March 2014. 

Information and entry forms are available at

The finalists will be announced in April 2014 and a national Awards ceremony will be held in June.

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