Are Good Teachers Born or Created?

Was I born to teach or naw? If you look at my limited teaching experience the answer would be “that’s a no for me dog” as former American Idol judge Randy Jackson is known for saying.  The potential was definitely there, or at least I was told that I had the gift, but I also lacked the desire or commitment to withstand some of the realities of the profession. There is a widely held belief that really good teachers are born that way. The general public would say good teachers are both skilled and passionate about education and children. Teachers will say that educating children was their professional desire from birth. The inherent altruistic perception of a teacher is further cemented in both the minds of the teacher and the public.

From my observation, these two idealistic viewpoints don’t connect to the reality of teaching. It is true that most really good teachers are passionate and care deeply about educating children. A master teacher is almost like a “ghost whisperer” in terms of their ability to inspire, motivate, and steer young minds during a learning episode. I’ve observed many teachers informally, and during my student teaching, who demonstrated this kind of mastery and excellence. It is both impressive and inspiring to witness! But these platitudes do not fully capture how one becomes a master teacher. 

In reality, the educational process including student teaching is crucial to any educator’s foundation and career. But it is only the beginning. Similar to other professions, educators must complete their rigorous formal education and student internship to gain hands-on experience. Depending on your student placement for the internship, students begin to feel the realities of preparing differentiated lesson plans, assessments, evaluations, school politics, parental and administrative expectations. Notice, I did not mention that teachers have to gain an understanding of the diverse student population and their specific learning needs as well as develop skills to manage the different characters in the group. Therefore, the student teaching experience is critical in terms of initial preparation for the job and should offer the absolute best in terms of training. Depending on your placement, this may not necessarily be the case.

During my student teaching experience, I heard stories about mistreatment and hazing in different school environments including a fellow student teacher being asked to leave the school before the end of her assignment through no fault of her own. She allegedly offended her cooperating mentor teacher but based upon my interaction with this 4.0 student, I could not imagine her doing anything so offensive. Fellow students sharing some of their student teaching experiences sent a sort of shock wave through the student body because we all feared experiencing the same thing.

From my experience, one can generally expect a baseline of on-the-job training in other professional industries whether hospital, bank, grocery store etc. The initial experience of most first year student teachers is one of absolute drowning – – in work, preparation, and school expectations – – all unknown elements to a newbie student teacher. It often creates the perfect storm to generate intense bouts of emotional carnage i.e. nervousness, crying, exhaustion, and absolute sadness. Yet they still have to maintain a certain cheerfulness and calmness in front of the primary audience – – children under their care and their supervising teachers. Student teachers across the nation perform this important work happily while often times secretly hiding their inner frustration.

As a student teacher, I was paired with a very dynamic, master teacher. We initially formed a great collaborative team until I questioned why another student was given access to information that I did not receive. There was no argument … just a matter of fact statement. This proved to be a big mistake because it altered our relationship. She felt challenged, and exercised her authority more in terms of not giving me additional opportunities. I felt trapped because I could not exercise my voice to raise questions if I wanted to graduate.  She also may have tarnished my reputation within the school setting creating a hostile work environment including with my principal whom I admired tremendously. Complaining or quitting was not an option so I pretended not to notice and endured the isolation and circumstances making the best out of it, trying to learn as much as possible. Upon graduation, I was so grateful to finish but I also felt bullied … as an adult. Wow! Adult work place bullies really do exist folks.

My first year teaching wasn’t much better. I had regained my hopefulness after graduation but my idealism was soon completely zapped. The rigors of the profession are undeniable. The learning curve is huge, and you may not necessarily get the support. In addition to the administrative and parental expectations, one is expected to prepare young minds using an unfamiliar curriculum and resources with proficiency. In my case, I was assigned a disproportionate number of special needs children in an environment not conducive for movement and space. We all felt claustrophobic, and uncomfortable at times but made the best of it. Some would say that I experienced a kind of “new teacher hazing” where the ratio of male to female students is not normally assigned. Perhaps with more experience, none of the above circumstances would have mattered but it matters a lot for a first year teacher. I was eventually assigned an excellent mentor after making the request but she lived in another state and could not advise or support my day-to-day questions. A few parents of students with the most challenging behavioral and learning needs (but lovable children) decided to talk to the principal instead of me directly as the teacher. My school administration did not include my perspective or documentation which felt very undermining. Eventually, my grade level chair decided to un-couple our entire team collaboration process which meant all formal support was dismantled. Did I also mention, I worked 12-hour days, did not get a classroom assistant, bathroom breaks, opportunity to consistently eat lunch, etc. At this point, all hope for success was lost. 

What is my point in sharing this information? Well, I do not want sympathy. Remember, I admit that after my previous work place experiences, teaching full-time in the current system is not for me. I am sharing it with you to say that since I worked professionally for over 20 years in both the private and public sectors, this experience in education is unusual. One generally works hard in the private sector, often long and unthankful hours, but you can get basic human rights i.e. eat, restroom breaks, a minute to regroup, etc. Classroom teachers are “ON” the entire time when they arrive at school. They have to maintain the calm demeanor for the sake of the innocent student body even if they personally are not ok. How many times a day do other professionals get to take a quick break which allows them to regroup before continuing their work? 

At this point, I would suggest that to produce the best teachers we need to respect their humanity in terms of work conditions as well as expertise. Many other countries do not just pay lip service to the value of teachers but demonstrate their belief by the esteem bestowed upon them, work environment, and compensation. We need to protect student teachers so that they are partnered with individuals who are not only great teachers but mentors who show mutual respect and support allowing questions and disagreements in a healthy way – – No bullies need apply. Quality mentorship is a necessity but only if the mentor is able to coach and advise adults leading by example as role models. 

Becoming a master teacher is not easy. Quality and consistent training is necessary as well as having a passion for the job along with empathy. Most teachers are lifelong learners themselves, choosing to continue to grow and evolve for the sake of helping children. In addition, teachers are evaluated ad nauseam throughout the year by their principal and most critically by every parent or guardian who deserves and demands the best for their children. Believe me, master teachers earn the title – – and should receive the R-E-S-P-E-C-T in both acknowledgement and rewards professionally and personally.

So are good teachers born or created? You decide. 

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