An Ethic of Excellence

Yesterday I received the gift of a wonderful book – An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger – from one of our secondary principals.  Although not a new publication, Berger’s book is gaining a lot of attention in our school district, with a few schools purchasing copies for their entire staff to discuss in weekly noon-hour book club sessions.  For me the timing of  this book is remarkable, considering I have just finished historian Diane Ravitch’s rather bleak portrayal of test-based accountability policies and failed educational reforms in the United States.  By contrast, Berger, a veteran American classroom teacher, suggests that the key to educational improvement  is the development of an ethic or culture of excellence in every school.

Berger believes that excellence is born from a culture (whether it is family, community, school) that expects and supports excellence from children.  When children experience a school culture that sets high expectations, that inspires them to care and take pride in their accomplishments, and that values “integrity, respect, responsibility, compassion, and hard work” (p. 7),  they begin to develop an “appetite for excellence” (p.8).  Unlike Ravitch who, even in her concluding chapter, continues to advocate for enriched curriculum, improved assessment practices, and higher standards for teacher training, Berger proposes instead that we focus on “inspirational teaching” (p. 11) that insists on “beautiful, powerful and important work” (p. 29). As I began reading Berger’s book last night, I couldn’t help but reflect on my day and the many cultures of excellence I witnessed.

In the morning I presented a session on curriculum design to a cohort of student teachers  from SFU’s Professional Development Program.  Their faculty advisor is a good friend and former colleague of mine whom I have known for over 20 years.  As a primary classroom teacher Anne was renowned in our community for her ethic of care and excellence with her grade 2 students.  She was an extremely successful teacher who brought out the best in every child by setting high expectations for herself and her students, and by providing thoughtful support and guidance to ensure that each child was successful.  That same ethic of excellence was evident today as I listened to Anne speak with her older group of students – young adults who are just embarking on their careers as classroom teachers.  She expects them to work hard, to strive for excellence in their professional responsibilities, and to take pride in developing inspirational and powerful learning opportunities for their students.  And they know she will be there every step of the way, believing in them, supporting their growth, and ensuring their success as new teachers.

During the afternoon I worked with a wonderful district team of teachers who are helping to design the new Literacy 44 iBook .  It was an intense, engaging, and energetic planning session with a committed group of educators who are working together to create a powerful new online resource for classroom teachers.  This small group embodies  a culture of excellence in the area of literacy instruction.  Their hope is to inspire other teachers  across the school district to contribute to the development of this new iBook resource of best practices for literacy instruction.

Last night I attended my grade 12 son’s Theatre Improvisation night at his school.  He and is fellow drama students have honed their skills within a culture of excellence that has been carefully designed and sustained by their talented theatre teachers.  I watched amazed as the students performed spontaneous improv exercises that required high levels of concentration, collaboration and creativity.  These students were focused, supportive of their peers, and motivated to do their personal best with each performance.  They are accustomed to regular, honest feedback and critique from their peers and their teacher; they know that is the only way they will improve their craft.  These students love the hard work , the high expectations, and the ethic of excellence that have been established within the drama department.   And they know that it starts with inspirational teachers who demonstrate every day what it means to be passionate about your art form, to deliver high quality performances, and to take pride in your work.

There are examples of ethics of excellence all around me in North Vancouver, from secondary schools where committed teams of teachers are collaborating in pods to design cross-disciplinary, project-based learning models that engage students in authentic learning opportunities in their community, to early reading leadership  teams where teachers are using inquiry and action research to better understand and improve literacy instruction for our most vulnerable readers.

Perhaps the secret to remaining optimistic about educational reform is,  as Berger suggests, to continue collecting these beautiful, powerful examples of quality work – narratives and cultures of excellence to marvel at, to admire, and to inspire others.

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