July 14th, 2009

Sustaining Excellence


I’m making my way through a long, but thoughtful and well-documented report, “Creating a Culture for Scholarly and Systematic Innovation in Engineering Education.” It is an impressive piece of work and one beneficially read by faculty and academic leaders interested in education innovation in any field. (Find the report at www.asee.org. The link is in the upper left hand corner of the American Society for Engineering Education’s homepage.)

Here’s one quote that caught my eye. “Sustained excellence seldom happens serendipitously. It is generally the result of a compelling vision, clear goals, careful planning, and a commitment to follow through. It often requires a willingness to embrace ambiguity, persist in the face of disappointments, adapt as necessary, and collaborate with diverse stakeholders.”

The referent is teaching excellence—something we often think of as a destination, one of those places we aspire to reach. We tend to think that, like any destination, once you’ve arrived, you’re there. The quote highlights what’s needed if you want to stay there. The work that brought you to that level of excellence must continue.

I also like the quote because it clearly spells out the actions needed to sustain excellence. You don’t remain an excellent teacher by wanting to be one in some amorphous, generic kind of way. Certainly, motivation is needed to drive the efforts, but the required efforts are specific. Excellence in the classroom is understood, as in the teacher knows to what he or she aspires. Getting there is achieved by carefully set and clearly articulated goals. There’s a plan in place for reaching those goals and the determination to do what needs to be done, step by step. Absolutely, this requires work, but the tasks involved are not impossible. They are not something achievable by only a few especially “gifted” teachers. More often than not, good teaching is achieved and sustained by teachers willing to make the effort.

Finally, the quote is powerful because it’s honest about the efforts involved—not everything tried will be successful, not every decision is clear and unequivocal, not every choice will be a step forward. Our work as teachers is valued when we recognize how much rigor the task involves.