What is excellence? Hooray for Monday

May 24, 2021

By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students. 

School leaders often encourage teachers to tell their students to strive for excellence. This sounds good – we want our students to work hard, challenge themselves, and engage in work that is important, high quality, and useful. But when we instruct students to strive for excellence, we imply that excellence is something external, something outside of ourselves.

What if we imagined, instead, that excellence is already within each of our students, and ourselves? Then our job as teachers transforms. Instead of pushing our students toward learning, or delivering knowledge to them, we tap into our own inner wisdom to nurture and nourish our students’ innate desire to learn.

According to Webster’s, excellence means, “the quality of being excellent, or eminently good.”

I’ll take the definition further. Excellence means:

  • our innate ability to puzzle through life’s intricate mysteries – from solving math problems to translating a Spanish poem to analyzing historical events from first person accounts;

  • our intrinsic desire to learn, the intellectual curiosity that drives toddlers to engage in the physics experiment of figuring out how to crawl, walk, and jump;

  • the curiosity that compels us to venture into the unknown and see what’s there for us to learn.

Rigor, a mainstay in many schools, is sometimes considered a synonym for excellence. Both terms speak to the desire to motivate students to engage in work that is important, high quality, and useful. But rigor involves an external force used to compel students to learn to solve math problems; translate Spanish poems, and analyze historical events. Webster’s definition of rigor includes, “harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment…a condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable” and, interestingly enough, “obsolete.” Rigor can get the job done, but its benefits are negligible at best.

If excellence is action that springs from within, then rigor is action forced on us from without. As in…I go to school because I love it versus I go to school because they make me.

We see what we expect to see, what we have been taught or trained to see. We can re-teach ourselves; we can train our eyes to see excellence in our students. How might our teaching change if we search for, and expect to see, excellence within each of them? How might our enjoyment in teaching change if we are open to seeing excellence in our students, and in ourselves?

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