Petraeus, Tampa Schools, and the Crime of Mediocrity

News and coffee on the back porch

his morning I had my first cup of coffee on the back porch, reading the paper and enjoying the fresh, misty beginnings of the new day. Scout, who considers it her responsibility to monitor all outside activity (see picture, below), sat by the screen and made sure that nothing moved without her authorization.

The main headline referenced the ongoing scandal surrounding the inappropriate behavior of CIA director General David Petraeus, and the widening reach of the fallout that typically follows such fundamental breaches of trust. Most of the article’s content, however, amounted to little more than sensationalism, hearsay, gossip and salacious speculation.

MEDIOCRITY: Another headline dealt with the serious issue of what can happen when people don’t take their responsibilities seriously, or put any real effort into their work. The incident in question led to the death of a young child who was supposed to be supervised by school staff. The tragedy also serves as pointed commentary regarding what I believe is an epidemic of mediocrity that may well be at the heart of the social and economic problems beginning to define our culture.

TAMPA — No criminal charges will be filed but five attendants or aides have been suspended from their jobs in the wake of the death of an 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome who wandered away from a middle school gym class. –  The Tampa Tribune

The article in question detailed the tendency of the teachers’ aides to sit on the bleachers and take unauthorized breaks rather than to interact with the children. The apparent lack of interest in working with children or in showing initiative was an ongoing problem previously documented by the PE teacher.

In my two-decades as a teacher, working with exceptional-education students, the aides who worked in my classroom were always motivated, hard-working and creative. The work they did was vitally important, and we all understood that their role and their priority was to be 100% actively engaged with children.

Scout keeping her eye on things

EXCELLENCE: It doesn’t matter what our calling is in life; if we’re a teacher, an aide, a manager, a stay-at-home dad, a general officer, a mechanic, a preacher, a server, a cashier, a laborer, a writer, or a contractor; what matters is bringing our best to the table.

If our culture is not driven by excellence, by a commitment to serve one-another, and by a passion to make the absolute best of any given situation, then we will surely default to mediocrity. And, in many ways, mediocrity is deadly.

Unless we do more to make sure we put a stop to the current epidemic of D-minus performances, then we will most assuredly become a D-minus nation.

Do – and be – our best!

FAITH: A lot of my readers are people of faith. So I’ll conclude with this Bible verse that – I believe – has a lot to say about excellence:

And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way. – Colossians 3:17



  1. This article made me think of the recent story about the bus driver and attendant that allowed a handicapped child to die while neither dialing 911 nor running for help to the nearby physician’s office. Stories like these beg the question not just “what are we thinking” but “why AREN’T we thinking?”

    In my reading of JT Gatto, he blames, substantively, an educational system which he claims is systematically designed to produce mediocrity. His further argument, there are countless good and great teachers stuck in a system that demands, and even rewards, the mediocre rather than the excellent.

    As an educator, I was wondering if you agree, even in part, with that assessment. Or does JT have it wrong?


    • Short answer here (for now)… I believe education is a “sausage factory” model based on the industrial revolution world view. Mediocrity is the only way to keep the conveyor belt moving. That’s the short answer… but there are some phenomenal educators in the system, and a lot of great education going on. So I’ll limit this to agreeing with you, but with the caveat of “it’s complicated and I’ll have to write more about this later….”


      • Absolutely there are some great teachers going well above the call of duty. I had the privilege of interviewing one just yesterday and count several others as close friends. The frustration some of them experience on a daily basis is heartbreaking to me.

        I look forward to your expanded answer. That will be a tremendous conversation.


  2. Along those lines, putting my own profession in the spotlight. This morning I watched this “General Affair” turn the serious TV media into TMZ and the local dailies into supermarket tabloids. There were row of news cameras recording a woman eating her breakfast. Others were recording her getting in and out of a car. It makes me wonder if we are so callous and debased as a culture that this is what we demand as “news” or if the news has become so shallow that they consider “hard” news difficult and unprofitable.

    And maybe I’m just venting…


  3. Hi Derek, I loved your thoughts and perspective here. Mediocrity is a sad condition which is why it is such a gift when we are blessed by people who are truly exceptional at what they do. As an adoptive mom of three, all through the foster care system, I know what it means to have a great teacher in the life of a child with special needs. I look forward to reading more on your perspective as an educator.


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