Saturday, 10 October 2020

What does excellence look like?

I was asked the other day what I thought excellence in a school looked like. I'm embarrassed to say that I turned my answer into a diatribe against trying to bottle, spread and legislate for excellence. I should have put a more positive spin on things. 

But the point I was rather clumsily trying to make is that by definition excellence is unusual. School leaders often stifle it by doing the sort of things that well-meaning leaders do: setting targets, collecting data, rewarding conformity. It's also devilishly difficult to define. It's a cop-out, but it is true that you 'know it when you see it'.

Here's what I might have said excellence looks like given a bit more time to think about it. Excellence looks like:
  1. A swim coach returning late one afternoon with his team, deep in the middle of the holiday, with the campus otherwise deserted, proudly clutching his beloved team's trophy. No extra pay, no time off in lieu, just done for the love of the thing.
  2. The dancing of fingers effortlessly over a Macbook, as if it were a musical instrument, to put the finishing touches to a fiendishly complex data scraping widget.
  3. Demonstrating vocal techniques whilst simultaneously playing the piano with breathtaking beauty and precision. All the while peppering the rehearsal with wit, interesting asides, and an effortless command of the room.
  4. A senior leader chairing a difficult and fractious meeting with consummate calm and professionalism. Reading the emotional signals, steering the conversation gently, and drawing things to a close with firm but good-humoured authority.
  5. A 10-year-old pupil, and non-native English speaker, reading out the letters of words with high-speed perfection: onomatopoeia, sesquipedalian, vicissitudes... This in front of eight-hundred people and without the slightest twinge of nervousness.
  6. A Year 12 girl playing the cello with such feeling and emotion that a room of full of excited teenagers was left silenced and covered in goose-bumps.
  7. The furrowed brow of an Upper Sixth further mathematician, who 'thinks she's found a mistake on the exam paper'.
  8. A Y11 boy, no notes in hand - and seemingly no preparation, commanding a room for a full ten minutes with the most remarkable piece of oratory I have ever seen or heard. Truly world-class. Unbelievable.
  9. An evening lecture given by a history of art teacher - a modest and quiet man, near retirement and never having put himself forward for high office. Everyone left that room - myself very much included - with their eyes opened to huge new vistas of knowledge, desperate to know more. 
There's my little selection. I'd love to know yours.