Exploring Excellence in Education
Kevin P. Bartram, D.M.A.
To my two explorers—Nicholas, and Willie.
“Exploration is not a choice really—it’s an imperative, and it’s simply a matter of timing as to when the option is exercised.”
-Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Astronaut
“In theory, practice and theory are the same. In practice, they are not.” -Albert Einstein
I recently asked my two teenage sons, Nicholas and Willie—both Boy Scouts working on their Eagle rank—to reflect upon which merit badge was the most fun and which was the most “boring.” Hands down, the most boring (and if you are a parent, you know that this was the easier of the two questions to answer) was the Exploration Merit Badge.
“Really?” I replied, stunned. “I thought that would be fascinating.” Just consider the title. Exciting! “So, what made it boring?”
“First of all,” Nicholas said, “we got lost.” Which was surprising, because “We literally walked in a circle on a wide forest path.” Then, Willie added: “When we came upon a beehive, the merit badge counselors (also scouts) got scared and ran back. We found our own way back to the lodge. We finished the badge inside doing bookwork and hearing them talk to us.”
It may be hard to believe, but the merit badge counselors did follow BSAcurriculum guidelines (carefully thought out and presented step by step), and the boys all met the requirements and eventually received their badges. But as a teacher myself with over 30 years classroom experience, I was not impressed.
What would a gifted teacher do with that same merit badge, I wondered? Would that teacher have allowed such a poor experience to occur? Even if that teacher had zero background in scouting, a good teacher would have somehow made that badge a wonderful experience for the boys, even with the same curriculum.
I reflected upon great teachers in my own past and visualized them leading this little scouting requirement. What would a great teacher do? They would probably follow that forest path initially, but only as a stepping-off point to other grand adventures. What about the beehive? An opportunity to observe nature and to respect a bee’s importance as a pollinator, perhaps? My creative juices kicking in, I now envisioned a game whereby the boys learned concepts by igniting their natural competitive spirit. Kids love to compete. Maybe a scavenger hunt to find pre-determined spots through navigation skills or an animal print identification? With a little imagination and effort, the possibilities seemed endless.
The power of recognition
On the first day of my college Introduction to Music Education class each Fall, I used to ask my students to reflect on great teachers from their past. We all have a transformative teacher that made a difference in our lives. Who were yours? I asked them to close their eyes and picture that teacher up in front of the class. What are they doing? What are they saying? I asked them to share who that teacher was to them and why they made such an impact. I then told them that their homework tonight was simple—write them a letter, thank them…and mail it!
The response to this simple exercise was inspiring. Students reconnected with old teachers and established friendships that (in some cases) led to lifelong relationships. Past teachers heard affirmations from former students that lifted their spirits. They really had made a difference! Students assumed that these teachers received ample recognition and were shocked to learn that they rarely received applause. Some of these teachers told their former students that the exercise helped them recall why they had gotten into teaching in the first place. My students said that not only was the experience moving for them, but it was also equally emotional for their teachers.
Character Traits of a Great Teacher
Back in class, I asked my students to get out a piece of paper (groans). “On the left,” I said, “list ten characteristics of a quality teacher.” (Character traits of leaders are a hot topic in today’s online literature, and they had little problem with this part of the assignment.) We brainstormed possible traits, and they came up with: dedication, enthusiasm, subject-matter expertise, communication skills, organization, classroom management, and human respect.
I then asked, “Did your great teacher have all these traits?” Absolutely! “How about your average teachers? Wouldn’t you expect that they too had most of these qualities? At least some degree of subject-matter expertise?” Yes… “Wouldn’t even an average teacher have some communication skills or classroom management skills?” Sure. “So then, what’s the difference between an average teacher and your great teacher? On the right side, describe the qualities your own great teacher had.”
Suddenly, they realized it was a higher standard and they slowed their pace. They couldn’t simply regurgitate the left side—not for their own special teachers. (A quick thumb through the contents of this book will reveal little discussion of character traits for Great Teachers. Puzzling?) Dedication and enthusiasm are a good start, but those alone won’t suffice, not at this rarified level. We would expect our great teachers to be experts in their discipline and superb communicators, right? Organization, classroom management, and respect also seem crucial. In fact, they soon realized that if we were to omit any item from the left side, the profile of their great teacher would fall apart like a house of cards. They could have all of them, but not, say, organization? No, that didn’t work at all.
My students proudly reported that their great teachers had every character trait listed on the left-hand side. But after a moment, they grew quiet. Why so quiet, I asked? Deflated, they realized that they could never measure up to that standard of excellence. They would never be a great teacher. I asked gently: “Are we asking too much of our teachers (and ourselves) to maintain every one of those qualities? Are we creating some superhuman standard that can’t be attained in real life, and does any examination of great teaching just leave us wondering why we don’t stack up to others?”
Active Observation of Teaching
The answer is that it is both possible and necessary to study greatness in teaching, but to do so we must frame the discussion differently and move to a more active dimension. The greats didn’t get that way because they tried to measure up to someone else’s ideal; they set a goal and got to work on it. Hardy (2019) says: “Your ideals should not be your benchmark for achievement. Instead, your ideals should be the source from which you create your specific, challenging, time-bound and measurable goals.”[i] In other words, if we do the work to understand why some teachers excel, aren’t we better equipped to overcome obstacles and succeed?
“All of us are watchers—of television, of time clocks, of traffic on the freeway—but few are observers.
Everyone is looking, not many are seeing.”-Peter M. Leschak
Active observation is quite different from passive observation. As teachers, we are trained observers, but our students—not so much. We can attend a teaching clinic and learn much through active participation and observation, while the untrained eye might miss most of the information. The problem with this kind of professional development is that teachers (and administrators) don’t have either the time or the opportunity to sit in the back of a room and watch great teachers teach. Professional development is often relegated to a well-meaning lecture or instructional video. Moreover, the ‘best of the best’ in our field—the great practioners of our craft—are busy too, and worse, they do ‘their thing’ behind closed doors.
I have been inspired by each of the teachers in this book, and through observations and interviews, have come to know each of them well. For the Great Teachers who have passed, I spoke with family members and colleagues who were happy to share stories. This experience of writing this book has has taught me two things: (1) Great Teachers are gracious and giving of their time (even though they are busy), and (2) Great Teachers replace adversity with joy, fostered by forging relationships with people. Gracious, giving, and joyful people who are expert at connecting with people? Perhaps we need to revise our left hand column?
Brushes with Greatness
I began my own exploration of greatness in high school when an opportunity to work with the great Leonard Bernstein presented itself. In a way, that experience was the genesis behind this book, as were three other brushes with greatness throughout my life that I will share later. I was honored to be included in a small group of future conductors (consisting of three or four student interns) who were tasked with observing the maestro as he led a major symphony orchestra for several days in rehearsal and then in performance. I’ll never forget that first meeting with Bernstein, one of the most gifted conductors, composers, and teachers in modern history (see Chapter Seven).
Rehearsal began late (a rarity in the pro-orchestra ranks!), and our small group sat in the front row watching the orchestra, anticipating his entrance onto the stage. (I wondered what he would be like, but I was too young to fully grasp the significance of the moment.) After several tense minutes, something happened that I will never forget: the concert hall changed…I mean the entire hall. My new friends noticed it too and we turned to each other quizzically: there was a palpable feeling of energy or electricity in the building. It was like someone turned the heat up. Just then, like a bolt of lightning, Bernstein made his entrance from the side door onto the stage. It took him several minutes to reach the podium, because orchestra members stopped to greet him (he had not been in front of this orchestra in some time), reaching over other musicians to shake his hand or to receive a hug. I’d never experienced anything like that before or since.
At break, Bernstein made his way down to us (with cigarette in hand) and after introductions offered this advice: “Watch me closely in this next segment and try to anticipate when I will stop the orchestra. Consider: what did you hear that caused me to stop the group? Or, if you hear problems that I did not address, consider why I let it go. And when I do stop, see if you can anticipate what I will say to the orchestra in order to correct the problem.”
For the next hour, I failed miserably. To my novice ears, the orchestra was so good that I couldn’t even hear any problems, much less anticipate what he would say to correct them. It was exceedingly frustrating. The next day, he asked us how we were doing. My friends were also stuck. We responded that we were, well, struggling. He smiled. “Keep it up,” he said.
Then, on the afternoon of the second day, it happened—at least for me. I somehow began to hear the group better, like I had a new set of ears. I began to understand the kinds of things that he wanted from the orchestra. Just a little. And then I began to make judgments about whether or not he would stop the orchestra and address a problem. How did I do? I was mostly wrong, but it was thrilling when I got one right! I felt like a maestro, even for just a moment.
After the final rehearsal, he came down to meet us one more time. This time his assistant brought him a stool, a cigarette, a drink (not water!), and a towel because he has been perspiring on the podium. (I remember he had a bandana around his neck also for the sweat.)
“Well?” he asked between puffs. “How did it go?” We were happy to report some progress (though none of us would admit how little) and he seemed pleased. We didn’t have time for any follow up, and we were too scared to talk much. With a smile and a puff, he was gone, on to his next appointment before the concert that evening. But I never forgot that moment, and my first face-to-face brush with…greatness.
Coming Full Circle
Now, after a 35-year career of teaching both in public schools and in college (the last 20 years as a college professor), I have come full circle. I recently joined the faculty at a public high school and a middle school in Virginia. I am a “first-year teacher” again! But much of my career as a symphony conductor has been spent not only observing but working with great performers in the world of entertainment, including Tony Bennett, James Galway, Kenny Rogers, Itzhak Perlman, Kristen Chenoweth, Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, Henry Winkler, LeVar Burton and many more. It was especially gratifying years later when I worked with Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s daughter, in a program to honor her late father.
The time I have spent in rehearsals with each of these icons was so special, getting to know how they think and how they approach their art. I have spent time in practice rooms with Sir James Galway, rehearsed lines with Henry Winkler, and joked backstage with Itzhak Perlman. I have led each of them in performances with my own symphony orchestra, just like Maestro Bernstein did so many years ago—sans the cigarette and the bandana. (We’ll not mention the drink!)
So, the study of greatness has been more than a theoretical concept for me; it has been a deeply personal ‘exploration’ of what is possible. The purpose of this book is therefore not simply to outline learning theory but to observe how teachers apply them in today’s classroom environment.
Three more Brushes with Greatness
Like the teachers profiled in these pages, some of the greatest performers with whom I have worked were some of the most gifted and generous human beings. The oft heard quote “those who can’t do—teach” is an unfortunate and baseless statement. I have found the opposite to be true: those who can do—teach. To illustrate the point, I’d like to share how three more brushes with greatness formed the basis for this book.
The first was in Washington, D.C. around the same time as my meeting with Bernstein. As a high school student, I was invited to perform for the Kennedy Center Honors. My group was performing in the Hall of Nations for the banquet after the televised show. While there were many great stars in attendance, no one told us that we were the warmup group for a well-known jazz band.
When we were finished our set, the next group began setting up. It was the Count Basie Orchestra. But I had left my instrument case under the piano bench, not knowing what (or who) was coming up. When I reached the piano, the Count (who played piano) was already seated, wearing his signature cap, getting ready to kick off the band. He looked at me, and I gestured weakly to my case underneath his seat. He smiled and said, “Kid, wanna sit down for a while?” Stunned, I nodded and sat on the piano bench…with Count Basie. He allowed me to stay for the entire set!
When they finished, I made a graceful exit (I think) and began walking to the door when I spotted an old man wearing a lovely medallion around his neck. He was sitting at a banquet table eating dinner—all by himself. With newfound courage courtesy of the Count, I walked up to him said hello. Aaron Copland, sporting his newly won Kennedy Center Honors medallion, invited me to sit down with him.
Both Basie and Copland taught me something about greatness that night; a lesson that resonates with the teachers I have profiled in this book. Greatness is not about individual accomplishment but is about sharing our successes with others. One of our Great Teachers, John Passarini (Chapter Four) told me: “There are people who light other people’s candles to make the world brighter, and there are people who blow out other people’s candles to make themselves look brighter.” That’s precisely who the Count and Copland were for me.
Another brush with greatness happened in 2014, when I found myself standing in the wings with violinist Itzhak Perlman as we were about to make our way onto stage. I was conducting him in a performance of the monumental Beethoven Violin Concerto—one of the most difficult and substantial works in classical music. I was nervous, of course, but I was astonished when I looked over and saw Perlman…yawning! Miffed, I silently wondered how unimportant this gig must have seemed to him, having just come off a performance with the New York Philharmonic.
But I turned to him instead and joked, “Itzhak, are we keeping you awake?” He had a wonderful sense of humor, but he responded with a serious gaze, “No, I always yawn when I’m nervous.”
“Really?” I asked, glancing out at our sold-out hall. “You’re nervous for this small-town performance when you just performed in New York?”
He picked up his Stradivarius and said, “What kind of musician would I be if I weren’t nervous?”
That taught me something else about greatness—that the size of the audience or the prestige of the venue doesn’t matter—everybody is important enough to get our best effort. Thinking on that, I watched him struggle to move from his scooter to his crutches, slowly making his way onstage (Perlman famously has polio and cannot walk without assistance). I followed him, both physically and artistically, and we achieved a wonderful performance together.
Finally, I had the opportunity to lead the great Tony Bennett in a Christmas show in 2016. During rehearsal, the (then) 90-year-old Tony lightheartedly initiated a jam session with his rhythm section. Afterward, Tony introduced his drummer to us as “the former drummer to the great Count Basie.” Standing right next to him, I nearly fell over! At break, I struck up a conversation with the drummer (Harold Jones) and mentioned that time years ago when the Count allowed me to sit on his bench. He was there. He smiled in recognition of his old “boss” and his generous spirit. I had come full circle, and so had he. That night, Tony performed the longest set he had performed in years, according to his manager, and I had never heard our audience give a louder (or longer) ovation.
Lessons from Greatness
1. We Learn through Observation
These experiences have led me to believe that ultimately, the pursuit of greatness involves placing oneself among successful people and actively observing them. Most great people have a teaching spirit: they are more than willing to share their expertise. But recalling that Boy Scout Exploration badge, when we step into our own forest, it is incumbent on us to ask certain questions that make the observation worthwhile. For example, “How does one teacher take a curriculum and make the experience dull, while another can turn that same curriculum into something unique that the students will remember for years to come?” This is the study of Great Teaching.
2. Break the Code: Let’s Talk about Greatness in Teaching
Both in the classroom and in life, our words matter. Like an actor accepting an award, teachers tend to thank as many others as they can before the music plays us off the stage. But just as we would resent a corporate manager for taking credit for their employees’ hard work, we should be careful to not deflect too much credit for our classroom successes. When a teacher says: “I love my job, I get to play with kids all day!” or “Your child is the one that deserves all the credit!” we are diminishing our role as professionals. 2013 National Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau (Chapter Ten) fell into that trap early in his career: “I have (been) trying to downplay my work and ensure that I remain the humble teacher. But at what cost?”
Charbonneau calls it a “professional code.” We do not talk about our best teachers in public, nor do we give ourselves credit for being a professional with years of training. Regarding his National Teacher of the Year Award, he says: “It should be a simple introduction,” he said. “My name is Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 U.S. National Teacher of the Year and Top 50 Finalist for the 2015 Global Teacher Prize.” But as soon as the words come out,” he says, “it feels as though I have just broken a professional code—a code that says above all else, teachers are humble servants to their students, parents, administrators, community, and society. The code has been passed down from teacher to teacher.”
Educators value explicit instruction for its honesty and clarity, and for that same reason we advocate providing honest feedback to students rather than giving gratuitous praise. When we speak about teaching, we must hold ourselves to that same standard of integrity—a hallmark of powerful people. Jain (2014) says: “Getting the assignment of credit right is important to everyone. It is a driver of high performance. It is a key to making people feel fulfilled and motivated. The very best leaders and organizations get this and spare no effort to get it right.”[ii]
In teaching, when we deflect too much praise, we marginalize the years of specialized training that goes into teaching. We matter, and we need to recognize that truth. “Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling,” according to the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank. “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.”[iii] But, concludes Charbonneau: “What I have learned, however, is that code—the code of teacher humility, is actually causing a problem. A big problem. When a teacher plays down their role, understates their knowledge, undervalues their impact, and declines to discuss the complexities of their craft, it hurts, nearly fatally, the status of the teaching profession.”[iv]
This book—purposely titled Great Teachers (so that we can learn to verbalize the truth about teaching) brings this conversation to the fore; instead of focusing on what we are doing wrong, we need to recognize the many things that we are doing right.
3. We Need to Honor Greatness
While Great Teachers highlights the careers of but a chosen few, the broader goal to is provide a canvas upon which the profession of teaching can be revealed accurately and not how it is increasingly portrayed in the media and in school board meetings across the nation. Steeped in humility that is our “professional code”, educators need to be better at communicating what it is we do to a cynical public. The first step should be to honor those teachers who have made a difference in our lives.
While most of the Great Teachers in this book are not household names, their impact—often unrecognized even by them—lasts a lifetime to their students. It is telling that most of the teachers in this book felt that they weren’t worthy of being included. Most really are genuine and humble, like Count Basie was to me. One of these teachers told me, “Gosh, to be included in a book with these names. Wow!” “Another said, “You make me sound better than I ever was in real life!” This is the study of greatness in the field of teaching.
So let’s tag along while these Great Teachers lead their private explorations. Let’s take notes and ask lots of questions. Let’s be observant even to minute details of teaching that might be lost on the general public. Referring again to our Boy Scout merit badge, we need to ask why did the leader turn this way and leave the path there? How did they prepare for the exploration? How did they keep the scouts’ attention through the woods? Why did they ignore that big tree, instead stopping at this rotted stump? This is our journey and our responsibility.
I am indebted to each of the teachers profiled in this book for giving freely of their time and for teaching me about their life and their contributions to the field of education. While people generally enjoy talking about themselves, it’s uncomfortable to be analyzed for posterity—sharing personal successes as well as setbacks. These great teachers were very patient with me as I probed their careers relentlessly. It was an honor and a privilege to be in their company.
To Doug Dollar, thanks for believing in this project. To Dale Lonis, Founder and CEO of Music Mentors International, thank you for helping me find my voice. Thanks to my friend Rick Steves for his assistance with the chapter on Modern Languages, and to Christa McAuliffe’s mom Grace Corrigan for pointing me in the right direction about her daughter before her own passing in 2018 at age 94. A special thanks to actor Henry Winkler for his advice and friendship, and to Itzhak Perlman for showing me that greatness is also about hard work and high expectations.
Thanks to the outstanding reviewers who provided expert commentary and editing for each content area discipline. They are:
· Bruce Lesh, Director of Social Studies, Science, STEM, Environmental Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy at Maryland State Department of Education
· Ted Dickson, History Department Chair, Providence Day School, Charlotte, NC
· Timothy Davis, Ph.D., SUNY Cortland, National Chair of the Adapted Physical Education National Standards (APENS) Program
· Michelle Ferrer, Ph.D., Eastern Connecticut State University Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education
· Joseph A. Gallo, DSc, ATC, PT, Director, Athletic Training Program, Professor Sport & Movement Science Department, Salem State University
· Ken Tyler, former NCAA basketball coach and Director of Athletics. Lecturer in Sports Management at George Mason University
· Stefanie Wager, President NCSS Gates Ventures - OER Project
· David Zerull, Ph.D., Professor of Music Education, Shenandoah University
· Stephen Morrison, Ph.D., Professor of Music, Music Education, Center for the Study of Education and the Musical Experience, Henry & Leigh Bienen School of Music, Northwestern University
· Dianne Pape, Ph.D., Professor of Education at Texas State University (retired)
· Terrie Noland, Ph.D., CALP, Vice President, Educator Initiatives, Learning AllyTM
· Norah Jones, Educational Podcaster and Consultant in World Language & Culture
-Juan Carlos Morales, Ed.D., Director, Data and Assessment Project at AATG and World Language Instructor at Miami Dade College
-Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Board of Directors-National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
-Dr. Kevin P. Bartram, Spring 2022
The legendary Count Basie was an early inspiration behind the book "Great Teachers".