Musings on excellence

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A fellow teacher asked me to define excellence in education. I’m not exactly at a loss. I am more overwhelmed by the possibilities. At my most excellent, I am prepared, fun, and excited by my job. I am a version of that proverbial boyscout:

•Trustworthy,
•Loyal,
•Helpful,
•Friendly,
•Courteous,
•Kind,
•Obedient,
•Cheerful,
•Thrifty,
•Brave,
•Clean,
•and Reverent.

At this point in the holiday season, thrifty may be in serious doubt. Maybe I should return a few of these presents. Obedient has always been a struggle. But mostly, I can nail that scout creed.

Still, not all of those characteristics are needed for excellence. In these test-obsessed times, as we pursue the One-Common-Core Curriculum to rule them all, a lack of obedience may even be a virtue. Sometimes the only chance to provide necessary remedial instruction comes when we step off a pre-established, curricular path. For that matter, I have known excellent teachers who were not friendly, cheerful or even kind. A few former military colleagues come to mind. What these teachers lack in friendliness, they make up in clarity of expression and careful planning. Our toughest teachers often become our most memorable teachers, once we appreciate how much we learned in their classes.

Excellence will never be one size fits all. The mathematics professor who taught me linear algebra remains a fond memory. Decades later, I easily passed the algebra portion of the Illinois teacher’s certification test with little study and less practice. He was other students’ nightmare, though. He gave extraordinarily tough tests. Some of us loved him and those wild tests. Other students dropped quickly. I don’t know that I could term that tall, quiet Norwegian algebraist excellent. He taught math, not students. If you happened to love a mathematical challenge, he was your man. But if most the class failed his test, I’d say he regarded that failure as the students’ fault, not his.

So how do we identify excellent teachers? I would say that excellent teachers teach students — not a subject. If I am an English teacher, my responsibility will be to add to my students’ understanding of English language and literature. The more I succeed at this mission, the more excellent I am as a teacher. The subject merely serves as a vehicle. Learning is our destination.