Why Teaching Awards Are Good For Tembusu

This is a commentary written in conjunction with the joint news announcement by Tembusu College and the College of Alice & Peter Tan about the new Residential Colleges Teaching Excellence Awards.

When I told my stepmother, Jeannette, on the phone that Tembusu was going to have its first ever Teaching Excellence Awards ceremony, she asked me some critical questions.

She’s Dutch and worked in higher education for many years. From her perspective, it isn’t self-evident that such awards are a good thing. If a department or college aims to provide a meaningful education for students through its entire curriculum, then why single out a few ‘stars’ instead of recognizing the collective work of all faculty members? And how do you decide who deserves an award, given that excellent teaching can take many different forms?

Part of Jeannette’s hesitation, she acknowledged, was cultural. In the Netherlands, the competition element of a teaching award doesn’t gel with a culture that often values ‘blending in’ more than ‘standing out’.

Of course, things are different in Singapore, where competition is treated as a fact of life. But this does not mean that questions about the value of teaching awards shouldn’t be asked. So let me treat Jeannette’s critical take as an invitation to explain why teaching awards are good for Tembusu.

One reason is that we’ve now joined a process in which other faculties, schools and programmes at NUS already take part. This includes University Town-based units such as the Centre for English Language Communication’s Writing Unit and the University Scholars Programme. By jumping on the bandwagon, Tembusu College, the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT) and Residential College 4 (RC4), can now formally recognize, and make visible, excellent teaching in junior and senior seminars.

Importantly, we also have the chance to nominate some of our teachers for university-wide awards, namely the Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA), the Outstanding Educator Award (OEA) and, perhaps in future, the Career Achievement Award for Pedagogical Excellence (CAPE). Winning such awards reflects well on individuals. It also reflects well on the college or programme to which they belong.

Another reason teaching awards are good for Tembusu is that they prompt reflection on the practices of those whose teaching is most highly regarded by students and colleagues. What are these practices? How and why do they work? Nominees stop to think about these questions when putting together their teaching dossiers. Members of the Residential Colleges Teaching Excellence Committee, of which I am one, reflect on these questions when they deliberate over, select, and write endorsements and citations for award winners.

Such deliberate reflection on what constitutes ‘excellent’ teaching dovetails nicely with the description of the role of teaching awards at NUS on the website of the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning:

Teaching excellence awards serve three important functions in an institution of higher education. First, they recognise teachers who excel in their profession. Second, the awards serve as an indication of the importance the institution accords to teaching. Third, the awards send clear signals to the teaching community about what the institution regards as high quality teaching, i.e. by identifying the results that the institution’s teaching practices aim to strive for.

The website then goes on to note that, “Of these, the third function is probably the most important.”

Looking at the winners’ citations and student quotes for Tembusu’s recent awards winners, Kelvin Pang, Connor Graham and John van Wyhe, you get a sense of the qualities and practices that make their teaching exemplary. The three are quite different in personality and style. That said, I also see a few commonalities in their approaches to teaching.

One: they are passionate about their subject areas.

Two: they take their students very seriously. Kelvin, Connor and John believe that their students have something to contribute to an area or subject matter – something worth hearing. They encourage them to find that contribution and push them to strengthen it. Of course, how well this works is up to the student as well as the teacher. But several students report walking away from Kelvin’s, Connor’s or John’s classroom having done something they didn’t think they could do, or having seen a marked improvement in their skills. Students feel that these teachers are genuinely interested in their learning, and this turns out to be incredibly motivating.

Let me pause here, to say that there are other fellows whose classes have also made a real impact on students – sometimes for reasons similar to the ones mentioned above. The rules of the teaching awards process, however, allow for only a small percentage of teachers to be nominated for the awards each year (thus enforcing a form of meritocracy based on “relative position” rather than “absolute performance” – for the distinction, see Low, 2014). Deciding on the strongest candidates is, ultimately, a judgment call, albeit one that takes into account multiple parameters and forms of evidence, and that involves several people. This time, Kelvin, Connor and John came out a notch above the rest.

As for the future, who knows. The same fellows may continue to snap up the awards for teaching excellence, but given that Tembusu is full of strong teachers I can just as easily imagine these awards to change hands frequently. The latter outcome, if it happens, may in fact suit our culture of experimentation and exploration well. That culture is less about fostering reproducible success than it is about remaining open to possibilities, and willing to take risks, with the intention to inspire genuine learning and engagement.

Such an approach may not ‘pay off’ every time, but that’s normal and to be expected. As long as fellows remain passionate about their subjects, willing to invest thought and care into the learning environment they create, and ready to reflect with others on what works and doesn’t, Tembusu will be the better for it. Similarly, as long as students are willing to engage, and to invest time and effort in learning and exploration, they will flourish.

In sum, the teaching awards process recognizes and celebrates individuals, but it also gives us all an avenue – one among others – to reflect on, explore and indeed celebrate what teaching and learning at Tembusu can achieve, and how. This serves a young, aspirational college that wants to take the opportunities provided by our residential living-and-learning environment, and run with them.

So there you have it: a passionate defense of our new teaching awards, with quite a Dutch conclusion after all 😉



Low, Donald (2014), Good meritocracy, bad meritocracy. In: Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, with contributions from Linda Lim and Thum Ping Tjin. NUS Press, Singapore, pp.48-58. An earlier version is available here, but this unfortunately doesn’t contain the pertinent section on “absolute performance versus relative position” referenced above.

Photo by  Chia Hsiao Ching from the College of Alice and Peter Tan (CAPT)

About the Author:

Dr.Catelijne Coopmans is a fellow at Tembusu College. As Director of Studies, she supports fellows’ teaching, oversees the development of new modules, and works to foster a teaching-and-learning community where people share experiences, exchange ideas, and learn from one another. She teaches a Junior Seminar on ‘Fakes’, co-teaches the Senior Seminar on ‘Biomedicine and Singapore Society’, and has been actively involved with Tembusu’s Third Year Experience. Catelijne is also the Residential Fellow for Gaja House.

Editor: Jensen Goh