Teachers: Should Excellence Be Your Only Goal?

Is excellence at any price worth the cost?

Posted Jan 26, 2014

“Excellence” is the  “keyword” for education, in the same way that “Facebook” is the “keyword” for social media. It’s everywhere. Inescapable.

And more than a little unnerving.

Not to say that the idea of being an expert, being a leader, being productive, or being fabulously talented is anything new—hey, I’m 57 and those words have been around even longer than I have-- but this commanding, demanding focus on something as necessarily hazy as “excellence” deserves attention.

Shouldn’t we all be striving for excellence, teaching for excellence, insuring excellence? Achieving excellence at all costs?

Ummm, maybe not.

Let me explain.

During my treks around the country talking to educational groups, I’ve noticed that the concept of “excellence” (or “elite performance”) is eclipsing some of the more traditional ideas about competence, self-esteem, creativity, and problem solving.

There are panels about it, there are articles about it, and there are books about it. New posters for display on classroom walls figure the word “excellence.” Say the word often enough, of course, and it loses all meaning. Without something to anchor it – a series of definitions, a strong, defined community, a club you can get into, or a least a temporary tattoo to show that you’ve been initiated – how can we approach such a monumental concept?

The quest for elite performance can end up eroding ambition and talent, like rain that’s supposed to help a small plant grow but instead drowns it.

We keep telling kids that they should do what they do best. I think that’s a flaw in our system.

If a kid knows how to do something instinctively and wonderfully right from the start, by all means we should applaud his or her endeavors and offer every kind of support. Yet we should also encourage and support her attempts to try something altogether different; we should tell him that rising to a new challenge might be as much fun as the exploration of ground he already knows.

When I was a kid, I always felt bad for my classmates whose parents spent a lot of time, money and effort making them into little Mozarts, Tim Tebows, or Taylor Swifts. They seemed sad to me, and they always seemed to feel that they were letting somebody down when they didn’t come out in first place, or at least on the winning side. While they were being driven to ballet lessons or to try out for yet another state-wide team, I was happily entertaining myself scrap paper and a box of Crayolas, or else playing with my Barbies and watching re-runs of “I Love Lucy” on T.V. My free time wasn’t organized, which is why I have developed, over the years, such a fondness for the word “free.” (And not only when it has the word “Fat” in front of it, either, despite what my friends will tell you.)

Harnessing someone’s talents still means that you’re putting them in a harness – that you expect them to pull some kind of weight. But a harness is not something out of nature; it is a contrivance, a series of trappings, which inevitably end up domesticating and burdening the very creature that wears them. “Excellence” shouldn’t be a burden; achievement shouldn’t be a rope around your neck or a weight around your ankle. Doing well should be a choice, a gift, a chance, and a pleasure.

The old adage says that the only thing worth doing is worth doing well, but I’d like to suggest that we approach the whole concept with a different perspective: how about if we all agree that anything worth doing is, well, worth doing?

If you can do it well, that’s terrific, congratulations, good for you! And if turns out that you can’t do it well, that’s okay too, as long as you really have it a good, concerted, focused effort. After all, wasn’t it interesting-- and really, terrifically sort of fun-- to have done something entirely new? Didn’t you exercise new or sleepy parts of yourself? Didn’t it feel good to take a calculated risk in a safe environment? Aren’t you glad to have learned the meaning behind the line from Robert Browning’s poem where the speaker claims, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp/Or else what’s a heaven for?”

We can best show our own expertise as leaders by providing a structured but friendly environment for learning. We should encourage playfulness in our own lives as well as in the lives of our faculty and students because playfulness is the antithesis of stress, and stress, as we know, kills creativity, dynamic problem solving, and the powerful enjoyment of learning new things.

Helping children and young people learn new things and getting a kick out of the process: isn’t that why we’re here?

 --Revised 2014; first published in Principal Leadership