How can we create ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ in our schools?

For twenty-five years I’ve led a double life.  I’m a full-time classroom teacher in a public school.  In order to make ends meet for my family, I’ve worked during the summers, vacations, and sometimes weekends, as a carpenter.  In the classroom or on the building site my passion is the same: If you’re going to do something, I believe, you should do it well.  You should sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful and you should be proud of it.”

So, beguilingly, Ron Berger begins An Ethic of Excellence.  I imagine him sweating over a series of drafts to refine this passage into a fitting introduction to the aspects of the book which make it such a pleasure to read: expressing his pride in his craftsmanship and his students’ work; drawing explicit analogies between carpentry and scholarship; demonstrating his care for elegant writing.

What is ‘An Ethic of Excellence?’

Much of Berger’s environment is alien to me – but his careful evocation brings it to life.  With a handful of colleagues, he teaches in a rural elementary school which educates all of the town’s children.  In this small community, he spends much of his spare time working as a carpenter.  His students pursue long-running projects, for example, one term, students learn about the culture of deaf people and conduct an exchange with a school for deaf children; another project sees students analyse the town’s water supplies and share the results.  Berger remains in contact with a large number of his students, long after they have left the school.  This life and work is woven throughout the book and forms much of the substance for the arguments he makes about education:

An archive of excellence

They can’t have lost my student work.  This work is more precious than anything I own.  It’s irreplaceable.  My students will kill me.”

Berger shows that his heart is in his students’ work.  He writes with passion about the growth his students achieve and their ability to articulate it.  Their portfolios showcase work which outsiders deem professional and beyond the competence of children; it is revealed to be the product of careful and patient redrafting.  Every student is proved capable of creating astonishingly competent and mature work, overcoming individual weaknesses in doing so.  Berger collects this work and uses it as his strongest proof of the worth of all he does.

A culture of excellence

Thinking that projects or critique or portfolios are a magic solution is as silly as thinking high-stakes testing will turn schools around.  Only as part of a strong classroom culture or school culture are those tools valuable.  Culture matters.”

Berger deliberately places developing a ‘culture of excellence’ first, arguing that the environment and peer pressure do most to form students’ attitudes and responses to school.  He mentions a critical moment in a troubled student’s integration into his school: the lesson when he first made a real effort in his work and received genuine praise from his peers.  He contrasts schools which suffer from, and are overwhelmed by, neglect, with those where teachers and principals create oases of calm, order and beauty.  The interaction between his school and town exemplifies the merits of treating the school as belonging to the community and the reciprocal support offered by residents.  Berger gives no magic formula for developing a strong culture in a school; he offers ideas to think about, and a sense of the importance of doing so.

Work of excellence

Last year I was a the check out counter of a grocery store and the cashier, the mother of one of the students who worked on the project, looked at me and said: My son will never be the same.  No matter how many tests tell him he’s stupid, he knows he’s not.  He did that work.  He knows he’s capable of excellence.”

Berger explains a series of the strategies he employs which help his students create great work.  Some of these are fundamental decisions about the curriculum: he uses extended cross-curricular studies and conducts genuine research, investigating and publishing the radon levels and water purity in the town, for example.  Others are techniques which make high quality work within these projects possible, such as using multiple drafts and keeping ‘tribute work’ – models of the best projects completed in previous years.  His use of ‘critique’ (peer-assessment, in essence), was particularly interesting, because he has turned something which is often denigrated (frequently with good reason), into a powerful tool which refines students’ understanding of their work and how to improve while also reinforcing the notions of peer pressure and community made in the previous section.  I could go on about this section: each of the strategies is interesting and worthy of consideration and analysis, in a forthcoming post I will come back to some of them.

Teachers’ pursuit of excellence

I look at this group of teachers and I’m filled with admiration.  The building is a wreck, the administration is awful, the students are transient and struggling, the newspapers attack the school and the teachers with criticism over test scores.  But these people aren’t giving up!”

What do teachers need to ensure their students’ success?  Berger discusses, with distaste, the efforts of some of the ‘reformers’ with whom he has come into contact, disdaining ideas such as merit pay, teacher competition and ‘teacherproof’ solutions.  He contrasts the choice between a body of teachers who are underpaid, insufficiently supported and considered replaceable, and the prospects of making teaching a desirable profession in which teachers are given autonomy and support to work well.  Berger considers the apprenticeship which a carpenter goes through to attain mastery and compares it unfavourably with the limited mentoring given new teachers.  He provides few answers, but he sounds a strong warning that the success he has achieved in his own school can only be undermined by policies which fail to trust and support teachers..

How does An Ethic of Excellence apply outside rural America?

How applicable is this narrative outside Berger’s context?  Here are some of my thoughts while reading the book:
– If I taught in elementary school teacher and had the same students all day, then I could do this…
– If only we had portfolio-based assessment, then this would work…
– If I were in a one-school district and we could design our own measures of success, then…
– If I were a carpenter…

But these questions missed the mark, because they fixated on the superficial.  Most of what Berger writes about could be applied in any British classroom.

The quality of work Berger describes is something I have always wished to see in my students’ writing.  What his book forced me to reconsider was how I ensure students achieve this.  I made myself one promise on reading the book: every piece of serious work my students do this year, they will redraft three times.  As with many of Berger’s actions, this may appear superficial; behind it lies a commitment to deploy a range of strategies (some Berger’s, some from elsewhere) which ensure that the act of redrafting is worthwhile and leads to substantial improvement between the drafts and a culminating work of excellence.  (Assuming I write quickly enough, next week’s blog will examine this process in more detail).

With an underlying vision for an ethic of excellence in my classroom, I can commit to this single change; I suspect the same impulse could work in any school and any teacher’s role.  Berger’s book is a powerful manifesto for an original and inspiring curriculum and pedagogy, inseparable from deep rigour and a quest for perfection.  Berger believes in the potential of his students to create great work and he calls for teachers to be trusted to make this possible, there are many ways teachers, schools and policy-makers could achieve this.

What do teachers make?

Berger’s conclusion reminds us what we are doing as teachers: forming adults.  He asks himself, “How do I really know what I have done for my students?”

I think of my life in my small town.  The policeman for my town is  a former student.  I trust him to protect my life; I trust him to work kindly and carefully with the young students in my school, which he does often and does tenderly.  The nurse at my medical clinic is my former student.  I trust her with my health….  There may not be numbers to measure these things but there is a reason I feel so free and thankful trusting my life to these people: They take pride in doing their best.  They have an ethic of excellence.”

Perhaps, for teachers of my age, experience or career history, it is easy to overlook this.  The targets which schools and governments set, the data which we collect and on which we are judged, do very little to correct this deficiency.  I was inspired by Andy Day’s reflections on teaching generations of students and looking to the long term; likewise, Berger reminds us where our ultimate responsibility lies and the real product of our lessons.

My reaction to working in a very authoritarian school abroad, before teacher training, was to enter teaching enraptured by the works of AS Neill and Paolo Freire.  At present, I suspect a pervading feeling that teachers’ professionalism is under constant assault is driving me to a faith in it which borders on panacea.  Nonetheless, Berger’s argument culminates, strongly, in a belief that teachers, as professionals and craftsmen, must be trusted to formulate and cultivate an ethic of excellence in their students.

Further reading

Read the book.  Trust me.

Alex Quigley has also reviewed the book.

To see this in practice, Tom Sherrington wrote earlier this week on some of Berger’s techniques, while David Didau has explored employing ‘public critique.’

Dave Fawcett has written a characteristically thoughtful and thorough post on building a culture of critique.

If you haven’t read Andy Day’s post discussing this generational approach to teaching and educational and social justice, I’d encourage you to do so.

9 responses to “How can we create ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ in our schools?

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