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posted: 12/6/2012 8:45 AM

Keeping excellence in the equation of school coverage

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Celebrating excellence is a fundamental function of the Daily Herald. In the context of our motto expressed at the top of the Opinion page, I rank it under the heading of "to fear God," because it honors the best of the human spirit, but it can also fall under "to tell the truth," for it's important to remember that there is so much more to the picture of who we are as people and communities than the assorted murders, fights, politics, tragedies and crises that, if we let them, could dominate the front pages.

In this spirit, we carry a front page feature every week highlighting "Suburban Standouts" by Elena Ferrarin and Kimberly Pohl. We publish a weekly series by Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff on suburban natives making it big in show business. Throughout the school year, our sports writers and editors honor the young men and women who make a difference on their high school sports teams -- including football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and more. In the winter, with the help of a panel of educators and community leaders, we identify some of the young people who demonstrate the highest standards of leadership in their schools, and at the end of the school year, again with help from our communities, we recognize some of the highest all-around academic achievers.

This week, we added a new category, "The Suburbs' Top Teachers." The decision to focus on teachers has various origins. For one, next to parents, teachers may have the greatest opportunity of any adults to shape the lives of young people. It makes sense to seek out those who are doing that job best, both to share their strategies and to help communities and parents see remarkable work with their children that they might not otherwise know is even going on.

But this focus is also important in the context of our times. Because the financial implications for everyone in Illinois are so significant, educators' pensions have rightly drawn the attention of lawmakers, policy makers and the public. But an unfortunate effect of this debate has been to shift the spotlight almost entirely away from the classroom. We've tended to concentrate so much on the difficult and necessary discussion of how to manage teachers in retirement that we've all but forgotten to recognize what they do on the job.

For Ryan Brown, the outstanding Hoffman Estates High School English teacher and gymnastics coach we profiled this week, that includes a school day infected with enthusiasm from 6:30 in the morning until 8 in the evening and a single-minded goal, as he says in a video at our website, for all his students "to learn ... how they're going to affect change for the positive for themselves and the people that are near them through speech and writing."

As if to punctuate the need to draw attention to that kind of spirit, some commenters at our website used the story as an excuse to copy public salary and pension information about every school employee quoted in Brown's story, attempting to shift the focus from excellence in the classroom to the politics of teacher pay. We decided to keep the discussion on point and removed those kinds of remarks. We publish plenty of stories and editorials about teacher pay and benefits where that discussion is appropriate; these stories, we agreed, are about what makes excellent teaching, so the comments, positive or negative, should focus on that.

Great things are going on in suburban schools every day. It's always been a hallmark of the Daily Herald's commitment to our communities that we weave them into the routine of our coverage. In our video, HEHS's Ryan Brown says, "I like to talk to (my students) about present day. This is what's happening today, but this is how what's happening today affects tomorrow and the week after that and the month after that and way, way, way down the line." That's a great foundation for excellence in teaching, but it also strikes me that newspapers and citizens thinking "way, way, way down the line" must remember that political and technical challenges eventually will be addressed and change, but the one constant in the school equation is the excellence that goes on in the classroom.

The individuals we'll profile in future installments of "The Suburbs' Top Teachers" will help make sure that theme doesn't get lost.

Jim Slusher, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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