Teaching awards are not uncommon. We probably all know someone who’s won one, and several more who should. Excellent teachers are the reason why many of us have been inspired to stretch ourselves beyond our limits, only to find that we are capable of so much more than we ever imagined.
The reason we humans have accomplished amazing things is due to the teachers who imparted the foundational wisdom required for the leaps (large and small) we’ve taken. But good teachers don’t always get a chance in the spotlight like they deserve – and they do deserve more credit, especially at the university and post-graduate level, where administration and research often are prioritized higher than teaching.
I proposed The Business Professor of the Year Award last year as a way to honor great teachers. The Economist responded enthusiastically to the concept, and agreed to run the competition. As a member of the judging panel, it has been amazing to watch the process – from initial idea to gearing up for the actual awarding of the $100,000 cash prize.
Along the way, a lot of questions have been raised about how we will determine the Best Business Professor. I’m going to answer some of the more interesting ones, and provide an “insider’s view” on why it’s a tough world for good teachers at the graduate level.
Aren’t the best business teachers in the top ranked schools already? Why do we need to look beyond those?
It does seem like the best teachers would naturally gravitate to the schools with the best reputations and remuneration. But many of the top-ranked schools are top ranked because of their research focus – not because of their teaching.
When I taught at a top ten school, I was regularly reminded that good teacher ratings might actually count against me in a tenure decision. Some powerful faculty members thought that great student ratings suggested too much entertainment value in the classroom, and that a highly rated teacher is too focused on instruction instead of research. Because of this, a lot of great teachers seek out jobs at state, community, and non-ranked schools that emphasize and even reward teaching.
Don’t business schools gather student ratings of the best teachers? Why not use those as an initial cut of best teachers?
School-generated teacher ratings have a couple of basic flaws:
1) Students rate teachers and courses before they have received a grade in the course, and long before they’ve had to apply the lessons from those courses in the real world.
2) Some teachers manipulate student ratings: they don’t give (bad) grades before student ratings are complete; they tell students how great they are, even if they haven’t done anything very impressive; they don’t give honest, negative feedback; and they emphasize entertainment-value and motivational speaking.
Flaws aside, there’s also no mechanism (to my knowledge) that allows students and prospective ones to compare student ratings across schools. If great teaching is important to you, shouldn’t you have some insight into that?
Okay, if not a simple numeric comparison, why don’t we just poll business school deans about their best teachers?
Most deans and school presidents have no idea what goes on in a classroom because it’s not part of their job description (that doesn’t mean it’s OK not to have an inkling). Deans and presidents are tasked with raising funds, managing boards, and putting out fires. They rarely have the time or the inclination to sit in a class.
In my twenty-five year teaching career, the first time a dean actually sat in on my class was earlier this year, at Hult. In fact, I never had an observer sit in one of my classes until about five years ago at Globis University in Japan. At Globis I received a formal one-hour feedback session on what I was doing well and badly in the classroom from someone half my age – but still, it was very helpful!
How do you transfer students’ positive feedback on their professors into an event?
We decided we had to go directly to students and former students. We asked individuals to nominate their favorite professor, and rally others to vote for the teachers they love. We were hopeful that former students, out in the workforce, would cast their minds back to the professors who had influenced them in a significant way.
We were not disappointed. 220 nominations came in from six continents. And 35,000 students voted for their favorite nominated profs. It really became a worldwide phenomenon.
In order to narrow the finalists down to the “best,” we decided to make that final hurdle a live competition. From my experience leading Hult’s faculty recruiting process, there is nothing like sitting in a classroom to observe how a teacher connects (or doesn’t) with the students. I’m convinced that the normal methods of hiring a faculty member (resumes, copies of teacher ratings, and interviews) are a very poor substitute for watching a teacher in action. Great teachers are truly a joy to behold.
This Thursday, in London and online, you can behold the four finalists. They will be teaching a roomful of current MBA students who are studying in more than twenty institutions around the world. Those students will vote for the winning professor of the year, and online viewers will have a vote in the outcome as well.
I’ll speak for my fellow judges in giving many thanks to the students and former students out there who participated in the nomination process, and those planning to watch the final event in-person or virtually. It will be more than just the final and formal conclusion to a months-long process to identify excellent business professors all over the world. It will be an opportunity to truly celebrate and honor the final four, as well as all the great teachers who work very hard, and in the process inspire their students to accomplish great things.
Cue the spotlight.