When Allan M. Brandt, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, took his son on a college visit two years ago, a well-meaning representative told him that unlike at other institutions, his son would “never be taught by a graduate student.”

“My first thought was, how terrible!” said Brandt. “I would be sorry if my son ended up in a place like that. The gifted, caring teaching that graduate students do every day of the year is one of the most inspiring aspects of Harvard.”

Brandt acknowledged the pedagogical achievements of Harvard’s graduate students, as well as preceptors, lecturers, and undergraduate course assistants at the biannual Teaching Excellence Awards Reception last Thursday (April 24). The event, hosted by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, honored instructors who had scored a 4.5 or higher on their undergraduate course evaluations.

Honorees mingled with professors, family, and friends over champagne in the south concourse of the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) as sunshine and cherry blossoms spilled in from the Japanese garden.

“Harvard is very lucky to have the collective talent represented in this room,” said James Wilkinson, director of the Bok Center. “It is wonderful to celebrate the accomplishments of people who tend not to be in the spotlight, but who do some of the most challenging teaching at Harvard.”

Wilkinson presented the honorees with Certificates of Distinction in Teaching for their efforts in the fall semester 2007. More than 400 instructors received the accolade. Of these, 286 were graduate student teaching assistants or teaching fellows, 106 were lecturers or preceptors, and 17 were undergraduate course assistants.

The ceremony concluded with Brandt recognizing five graduate students with Derek C. Bok Awards for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching of Undergraduates.

“These awards honor the remarkable role that graduate students play in the life of the University,” said Brandt. “I am continually inspired by their commitment and conscientiousness.”

The Derek Bok Awards include a $1,000 cash prize, made possible through a gift by David G. Nathan ’51, M.D. ’55 and his wife Jean Louise Friedman Nathan. David Nathan, the Robert A. Stranahan Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, was present at the ceremony to greet the recipients.

This year’s winners were Coren Apicella, Paul Baines, Joel Hartman, Carla Martin, and Tamara Pavasovic. Brandt shared anecdotes about each honoree, as well as praise from their student evaluations.

Apicella, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in anthropology, has served as a teaching fellow for three different courses at Harvard. She was recognized for her “enthusiasm and intellectual rigor,” as well as her ability to create a welcoming environment in section.

Baines is a third-year Ph.D student in the Statistics Department, whose influence “will be felt for years to come in the department and beyond,” said Brandt. Baines created three teaching guides to serve his colleagues in the department, demonstrating a far-reaching grasp of the pedagogical problems faced by all teachers.

Cold winter nights atop the Science Center are all in a day’s work for Hartman, who studies in the Astronomy Department. He has served as a teaching fellow for three demanding courses and led hands-on projects with the Science Center telescope, often working after midnight to observe with students or fix and maintain the telescope.

“He is a role model for his peers,” said Brandt, “and he has received undergraduate evaluations that would make any teacher proud.”

Martin, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of African and African American Studies, was recognized by her students and colleagues as an “exceptional teacher and scholar.” She is fluent in more than five languages, including Swahili and Haitian Creole, and is deeply involved in the Harvard African Language Program.

Pavasovic’s innovative approach to section for Sociology 128: “Models of Social Science Research” left her students impressed. In addition to creating opportunities for group projects and teamwork, Pavasovic — a Ph.D. candidate in sociology — offered extensive office hours, worked tirelessly with students to revise their papers, and created a supportive community environment.

All of the recipients expressed delight at being recognized by the Graduate School, and many commented on the joy of being able to work so closely with undergraduates.

“I am really touched to win this award,” Martin said. “I enjoy teaching undergraduates at Harvard because they are very motivated, so you have more time to think through the academics. I have benefited a lot from engaging with them.”

Baines expressed a similar sentiment.

“I love teaching undergraduates because you come across so many different people and personalities,” he said. “They all have insightful questions.” Baines said he was “stunned” to win a teaching award.

“It is a real honor. I know the people who have won it previously and they are all phenomenal instructors, so to be given the same recognition is wonderful,” he said.