Teachers are born not made, Dept.

I get fan mail from time to time and invitations to speak that most of the time never come to fruition.  One such invitation came from the treasurer of a Catholic school in the Los Angeles area.  He had read my book “Math Education in the US: Still Crazy After All These Years” and liked it so much that he ordered ten copies for various teachers in the school.

About two years ago he asked me if I would speak in late August at his school.  I was just starting my teaching job at my current school and had to report the week before school started–which coincided with when he wanted me to speak.  I said I could not given the circumstances, but maybe we could look at doing it in April since I got two weeks off, and surely one of those weeks his school would be in session.  He demonstrated a great amount of inflexibility and said August was the only time.  He then suggested the same time in August a year from then.

I said I couldn’t think that far ahead and let the subject drop. We continued in a back and forth conversation in which he was constantly buttering me up and saying things like “You are a national treasure but you probably don’t realize it.”  He would ask for my opinion on various things and I would give it to him.

One time, however, he said that he thought teachers are born not made, and wondered what my opinion was on the matter.  I said I disagreed and that I had learned a lot about teaching techniques from articles I’ve read from reliable sources, (and including talks I heard at a researchED conference that I attended). One can always improve one’s teaching if one has the inclination–there is always something to be learned.  He apparently didn’t like this, and I never heard from him again.

I’ve thought about this from time to time because I hear others saying it also.  Teachers are no more born than virtuoso musicians are born, or award winning writers or actors. Aside from the few prodigies who may exist (the mathematician Ramanujan comes to mind) in general it takes hard work and much practice and learning. (Even Ramanujan had to learn how to do proofs for what he felt were obvious statements that needed none.)

But the myth prevails, and there is a sub-culture of teachers who look at teaching as a journey. In their world, teachers are ninjas and superheroes in a world of unicorns They attend ed camps not to learn new things but to reinforce their misguided notions about ineffective practices being effective and to be among those who speak the same group-think. The slightest indication of going against the group-think will cast such person to wander in the desert–even those who are national treasures who may not realize who they are.

8 thoughts on “Teachers are born not made, Dept.

  1. This is probably true for every job people end up in. With very few exceptions, like Wayne Gretzky or Mikhail Baryshnikov, there are very few jobs that we were destined for. And even then, Gretzky had to choose between being a professional hockey player, or baseball player.

    Teachers are never called masters at the beginning of their career, usually it takes a great deal of time, mistakes, and experience before ever getting to that point. This type of grandiose rhetoric is not helpful to anyone, and until education takes itself seriously in terms of following evidence based practices, the claims about being born to teach, need to be shelved.


    • Even the term “master teacher” is one that is becoming devoid of meaning. I recall someone saying that the teacher in a particular video was obviously a “master teacher”. She constantly asked questions, answered none, and in one case made a contradictory statement that was never followed up on. She toed the educationist party-line, however, and was able to do something horrendous extremely well. That made her a master teacher in this person’s eyes.


  2. I think that many people are unsuited to be teachers, and no amount of experience will make them good teachers. I’ve seen good meaning, hard working people fail utterly because basic skills were absent — an inability to command a room, not enough intelligence, poor temper control are not something you can wish away.

    I’ve seen good teachers give it up because they can’t cope. Often progressives make this worse though, because demanding that you “care” is a strain on someone who has a life outside the classroom they competes for their attention. (Lots of educationalists who push really intense workloads, such as Dan Meyer, have very short spans actually teaching, so don’t see the cost first hand.)

    What’s left — those born to teach — is still a big group though. With them practice, good techniques and focus build on top of the appropriate abilities.

    What I have also noticed is that many of those that most think they are in Group 3 are actually in Group 2. The teachers that make the most noise about how awesome they are tend, sadly, to not be able to bear the strain (largely because they over-invest their personal worth in people who do not have any intention of reciprocating — so are continually wounded when their charges fail to learn).

    They then complain that the system is holding them back, that their wonderful methods fail because they are not properly supported, that it didn’t work this time because it wasn’t done “properly”.

    Sometimes they would be good teachers, even great ones, if they just calmed down. If they just were professional about it, rather than making it a crusade. But instead they continue to create a big noise and disrupt because they haven’t worked out that they aren’t actually coping themselves.

    I don’t have a problem with “some people are born teachers”. I have a problem with people who think that they are born teachers and therefore everything else is wrong when they fail.


  3. When I was young, I was terrified of talking in front of a group of people. When I finally forced myself to do it for college math/CS, I thought I might be a complete failure. After I realized that I didn’t have complete mental freezes and that it really didn’t matter what the students thought (almost), I began to focus on whether of not I was successful.

    In college, I realized that complex things taught well can make all of the difference. I’ve read textbooks that made me feel really stupid until I found ones that changed all of that. You have to be open to finding what works and what doesn’t. In modern K-12 education, too many pedagogues think that it’s all about process and not results. PBL works by definition and they don’t look too carefully at what their best students do at home or with tutors. Their domain is process, not content or skills. When they talk about master teachers, they are talking about process and not content and specific results.

    You can have highly competent content specialists who are not good teachers, but it’s much tougher to have process-only teachers be good at content and skills – especially in K-6 math. Our state requires subject certification and student academic class separation starting in 7th grade, and that’s the beginning of the transition to the real world reality of high school, college, and career. For too many, however, it’s tough to recover from K-6. I had bright 7th grade students in my opt-in after school SSAT class who told me that they were just stupid. My son told me in 8th grade that he really knew very little about history and how now the subject was taught completely differently – not thematically.


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