Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.” ―Booker T. Washington
Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” ―Vince Lombardi
“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” ―Confucius
To be the best. To strive for excellence. Excellence in sports. Excellence in institutions of all kinds. Excellence as an individual. One might say striving for excellence is, well, American. The American way is to work hard, to show grit and determination and to excel.
In Lutheran schools, we use resources like National Lutheran School Accreditation to plan for improvement, to seek best practices and to work toward excellence. While most school purpose statements reference sharing Christ, those statements also commit to excellence.
So what do we do with Paul when in 1 Thessalonians 4 he encourages the church in Thessalonica to “make it your ambition to live a quiet life.” (Cue the shock face emoticon.) Some translations use the phrase, “A tranquil life.” It sure sounds like hard work and focused attention may be out of line with Paul.
Next, consider Jesus’s words to his disciples who asked to sit on the Savior's right and left of his heavenly reign. Jesus' response chided them and said, “...whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)
In support of this quiet life is our Lord himself. Born in a manger. Triumphant entry on a donkey. Arrested, crucified and buried. Instead of a puffed up message of “Look at me,” he healed the sick and washed his disciples feet. It sure doesn't capture the American version of excellence.
Go back to 1 Thessalonians and Paul gives us the context for his direction in the verses preceding. “...you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia” (4:9b-10a).
What does striving toward excellence look like? In Christian life it's about love- love of neighbor in honoring and respecting authorities, leading a sexually pure life, taking care of your neighbor’s and your property, keeping your neighbor’s good name, serving your neighbor. There’s no support for making a name for yourself, reaping the benefits of working hard, gaining more property (especially at the expense of a neighbor), proving yourself over someone else’s point of view or calling out the wrongs of your neighbor.
As usual, God has a much different way of looking at life and this time it’s defining excellence.
Should we teach hard work? Should we teach skills and encourage them to be done well? ABSOLUTELY! The nuance is to do all to the glory of God and in love to our neighbor.
So how does this look in the curriculum of the school? As far as the written curriculum, we must be very aware! For years, Lutheran schools have been satisfied with teaching from a national, secular, standardized textbook. Decades ago, it was made known that textbook companies aimed their product to large, influential states knowing that the rest of the nation would follow. You can be sure Lutheran schools were not considered in the process.
Today, it's imperative that each teacher, each school, “owns” the written curriculum. It’s obvious that as Lutheran school, we have to make the needed adjustments to teach science according to a Biblical worldview as opposed to widely accepted evolution based views. But this is imperative for history as well since textbooks fall prey to a variety of special interest biases. Kudos to the Indiana District-LCMS that worked with a large team of teachers, a core curriculum team and two strong commissioned teachers in writing a uniquely curriculum-mapped based K-8 school social studies curriculum (I might add that The Lutheran Schools Partnership was key to the leadership and development of this product).
Let’s also be careful of our schools’ hidden curriculum. Does that curriculum show a most excellent way? As a written curriculum has its three Rs (we in Lutheran schools have 4 when we add religion), the hidden curriculum also has its own Rs. Rules and routines speak loudly of what is important and not important in our school. How do those Rs reflect love for our neighbor? If we reflect on classroom rules, homework rules, and (dare I mention) COVID19 rules, do they reflect love for colleagues, classmates, parents and the community? Consideration of how educational goals are supported by communicated values are essential as excellence is sought.
We live in a challenging world. Let’s work on excellence, not conforming to a worldly view, but with eyes of faith.