Real Excellence in Education

Teachers are the key to quality education!
Sounds like the speech you get at the beginning of each school year from the superintendent, or maybe a politician’s speech to an education organization. Actually, though, this tired phrase is true. Teachers really are the key. If the teacher does his/her job well, real learning will occur in the class room. But this assumes that the teacher is creative, innovative, enthusiastic, making use of the best tools, committed to excellence, cares about the success of students, is unwilling to accept poor performance from any student, and is willing to change when the methods he or she is using are not working–then real learning will occur in the class room.
Some teachers are like that: Truly excellent at their work. Willing to learn and grow. Seeking out change that will accelerate learning. Giving themselves without reservation to the success of their students. Unwilling to accept failure from themselves or their students.
Some are otherwise: Stuck in printed text and paper quiz mode. Strenuously objecting to change. Stuck in the 1850s. Always blaming students when learning does not happen in their classes. Shrugging their shoulders when students fail (and they can pass the grading period and still fail at learning). Looking for any opportunity to avoid the serious task of educating a generation to be better, smarter, more prepared. Loving neither the subject they teach nor the students for whom they are responsible.
I somehow doubt that any of the second group will be reading this blog, but if it happens and you are unwilling to become one of the teachers in the first group, please resign your job at the end of this school year and go find something to do that doesn’t affect the future of our nation.

There is much we could complain about as teachers. The students, the parents, the administration, the system, the state agency we answer to, the excessive standardized testing, classroom disruption and/or interruption, the general state of youth in America. I’m sure you can add some to the list. But complaining accomplishes nothing. We do it to excuse our failures and make ourselves feel we have done enough. Hey, we put it out there–it’s up to the kids to learn, right?

We already know that national standards and federal agencies can’t solve the problems of American education. More money and increased teacher salaries would be nice, but increased state and federal funds have not saved us nor made our students better learners. More high-stakes testing evidently doesn’t help, either. It only diminishes the number of hours we have for learning. And students are not going to suddenly get better, become more attentive, stop acting like kids. Even the addition of billions of dollars worth of technology has not made a real and quantifiable difference. So the only thing teachers can really change is ourselves.

How? Think about a few challenging questions: When is the last time you actually read an article about how to improve your teaching? If students are not learning as you would wish in your classes, what will you do that is drastically different to change that? Are you willing to give the kind of time out of the classroom to learning that you expect your students to give to your assignments? Are you willing to explore and try technologies that will fundamentally change the way learning occurs in your class? And here’s a big one–Are you up for designing lessons and projects in a way that allows students to take charge of their learning, to give up control in favor of growing true life-long learners, to work side-by-side with kids to create a new and more effective environment for learning?

I recently commented on a social networking site that teachers could help their students learn at a much higher level than the standardized testing requires. One reply told me that my idea was not realistic in some situations. I don’t believe that. Of course, if you are teaching special ed, you may encounter some limitations, but even sped students can learn at a higher level than many teachers believe they can.

I encourage you to be better. Never accept the norm. And, as Churchill said, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Our enemy is our own mediocrity. Never give in.

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2 Comments on “Real Excellence in Education”

  1. Greg Garner Says:

    Excellent points. Your call, however, must reach beyond the drive for personal excellence and into corporate/communal excellence. It is not enough for me to decide that my classroom will be great. This is, far too often, what happens when we wait for Superman. We get a pocket of excellence, only for kids to be thrown back into the cesspool of the system. What good is it for me to improve my class (to the exclusion of other classes) if students leave my class and wander back into mediocrity? This call to action must be grasped and pushed out to the much larger audience including parents, community members, administrators, superintendents, school boards, and, yes, the students themselves.

    Change starts with me. But it certainly does not end with me.

    Thank you for your post!

  2. Lanny Says:

    Excellent article. Many of the most contemporary attempts to change education for the better were being presented nearly 100 years ago. Those ideas have never been realized because of the factors you mentioned. Some teachers, even those dedicated to teaching, sometimes fail to continue learning. In a changing world adaptation is necessary. Our students are learning, but sometimes the learning includes ideas and technologies that are over the teachers’ heads.

    By no means am I criticizing any educator. I think teachers are working for a noble cause, and I have a great appreciation for all who strive to improve the lives of young people. I would like to offer, however, encouragement in keeping up the good work, and in keeping up with the kids. That seems to be the real challenge at hand.


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