Schools that have the word “excellence” somewhere in their mission statement or objectives often use the word “rigor” as a way to explain the strength of their academic program. Rigor in this context typically means that the program expects a great deal of its students, in terms of their work rate and commitment of time and energy. In return, the students will have been challenged, stretched, and well educated on all fronts. Rigor and challenge are what many independent school parents are seeking when they choose their child’s school. Embedded in these notions is a sense of educational quality and a commitment to the best measures of teaching, resources, and educational outcomes.
Several decades ago, what was often assumed about these rigorous programs was that the students admitted to these schools were inherently capable of successfully navigating this challenging world, that somehow the strong survived (and graduated) in triumph, while those who struggled may not have belonged there after all and perhaps left or muddled along with less than stellar grades and a diminished sense of self. There was a tremendous responsibility put on the shoulders of the student to sort out the resources they needed to succeed and to adapt to whatever learning environment they were in at the time. Excellence in teaching used to mean fine-tuning one discrete way of instructing students. It was typically independent of the students’ individual needs and preferably tied to the teacher’s strength and comfort area. Teachers who could effectively master one way of teaching were lauded and celebrated as master teachers.
That sink-or-swim mentality, and the narrow vision of teaching that went along with it, are long gone from our definitions of teaching excellence and from what we consider to be great schools. The best schools are those that can effectively challenge students while simultaneously supporting each student to be their best selves. Operating on the presumption that each student admitted to these programs is capable of succeeding, the school now shoulders a great deal of responsibility to identify a student’s needs and to provide that child with the resources and skills needed to thrive. The student is still fully responsible for their own learning path, of course, but the school is a partner in that journey, with a clear role and responsibility to surround that student with the resources they need to succeed.
Excellence in teaching is now demonstrated by the teacher who is adaptable in the classroom, responsive to student learning styles and how any particular lesson needs to be modified as a result; by the teacher who seeks new resources to draw students into the learning process and to create collaborative work spaces to foster a sharing of knowledge and co-constructed learning; and by the teacher who seeks to understand the nuances of a students’ individual learning profile, tailoring content, instructional methodology, and resource allocation based on the diversity of these learning profiles in a particular class.
Episcopal Academy has studied this complex dynamic extensively over the last few years. With one of the more challenging programs nationally, we strive to also provide one of the most supportive environments, enabling each student who steps onto our campus to be their best selves and to thrive on all fronts. Supporting students does not in any way equate to lowering the bar or diminishing the rigor level. In fact, a truly rigorous program is one that is adaptable and that facilitates each learner contributing meaningfully and fully to the learning of all others in the classroom. By supporting each individual student to maximize their growth, it raises the bar for everyone else in the room.
Achieving this balance of challenge and support takes a great deal of teaching talent, dedicated professional development, and an institutional commitment to the individualized learning experience of each child. We strive to do that at Episcopal every day, for every child.