Are good teachers born or bred?

I wanted to quickly follow up on something we discussed yesterday, especially since my comments on it then seemed to have elicited some puzzled looks from many of you. The thing I’m referring to, of course, is the question of whether good teachers are made or whether there is a certain quality that good teachers teachers have that is simply waiting to manifest itself given the right opportunity. My argument, as you may recall, was that I have to believe, as a teacher educator, that we can shape anyone into a good teacher. It’s one of the things that drives my work as an educator of teachers and is also something, I think, that separates me philosophically from many people involved in teacher education.

This is not the same thing as saying that I believe we could take any person off the street and turn that person into an effective teacher overnight. Teaching is hard, complicated work, and to do it well requires not only a significant base of knowledge but also a kind of commitment (“grit,” if you will) that is altogether not common in the general population. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t help people find it within themselves. As I said yesterday, a lot of us show a tremendous about of grit and perseverance when we’re doing something we enjoy doing and when we know how to do it. That, unfortunately, doesn’t describe the everyday school experiences of most kids. It also increasingly does not describe the everyday work experiences of teachers. Nevertheless, I have to believe that it’s possible to ignite within just about anybody who’s interested in committing to it a genuine desire to be effective as a teacher.

Of course to do this we have to de-mystify teaching a  little bit and reveal the practices that make teachers effective. We often treat good teaching as something that not transferable and as something that’s simply born in some people — either you’ve got the gene to do it, or you don’t. When we say that good teachers are found, not made, we reinforce the idea that being a good teacher is like being a member of a really exclusive club — and that membership is determined not by how hard you work but by whether or not you were born with the right character traits or into the right situation to begin with. Surely Alina Bossbaly has an advantage with the students she teaches because of her own experiences as a child, but we can’t fall into the trap of believing that only people who have had those experiences can make good teachers for the kinds of students Alina teaches. Again, I think we have to believe that we can find ways of helping just about anyone who really wants to do it connect to students from a wide range of backgrounds.

To do that we have to do a better job of defining what it is that we want teachers to do. In some ways that process has to begin by acknowledging that this is work that anyone — anyone with the right balance of inquisitiveness, intellectual ability, dedication, and, okay, “grit” — can do if we show them how to. In this sense, teachers are always made; they are not simply born that way. Anyone who has ever become a teacher has had to change and evolve and even develop new sides of his or her personality in order to handle the challenges of teaching. There may be something within them that led them to teaching, but whatever that something is is probably there whether it gets channeled into teaching or not. As somebody else said yesterday: Alina would probably be good at whatever she chose to do with her life. What makes her especially well suited to teaching is her grasp of the unique challenges of the job and her ability to adapt her skill set to those challenges. If that can’t be taught then there’s no point in trying to educate people to become teachers in the first place.

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