, Derry, New Hampshire

May 30, 2013

Column: Great teachers are born, not made

Derry News

---- — The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews is one of the best education writers in the business. I often agree with his analyses, but I was flummoxed recently when I stumbled upon his take on a Gallup poll response to a question asked almost two years ago.

The poll asked 1,000 American adults, “Is the ability to teach or instruct students more the result of natural talent or more the result of college training about how to teach?”

Seventy percent responded that natural talent was more important than college training. Mathews writes that he found the question “odd” and the answer “troubling.”

I’ve long argued that most of us know little of what really goes on in public-school classrooms. Teacher bashing has become as American as baseball, apple pie and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But this time, the masses responded correctly to a perfectly logical question.

Any success I’ve achieved as a teacher is due to my willingness to take risks. I’ll never jump the Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle, but I’ve always taken creative risks in my classroom, and my formal professional training has nothing to do with it. My language arts methods class did not teach me to dump the grammar worksheets and institute a writing workshop instead.

I never read a case study in my social studies methods class that told me, “Hey, John, tick off some of your more tradition-bound colleagues and mummify bull frogs to get your sixth-graders excited about ancient Egypt. And while you’re at it, have your students perform some of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ to help them understand the inner workings of the Roman government.”

Is risk-taking a talent? Maybe it’s more of a disposition. And in my case, it’s linked with an unwavering trust in my instincts. I didn’t take a test to earn them; they’ve always been a part of me.

I’ve supervised five or six student teachers over the years, and with one exception, they’ve entered my classroom nervous and stiff, held hostage by measurable goals and objectives. Most of them improved a little with practice, but the exception shined from the get-go, a natural if there ever was one.

Certainly teachers-in-training need to learn their craft, but not by reading a textbook or sitting in a lecture hall. They need to be paired with a talented veteran teacher and learn by doing, over an extended period of time, much like a resident physician in medical school. Teaching is the quintessential example of a job that requires thinking on one’s feet. That’s tough to do when you’re stuck reading a book in a chair.

Can a college teacher-training program teach a sense of humor? Can someone learn to give up that need for control that I believe still attracts so many to the teaching profession? Can a person be taught to share their passions with students or admit they don’t have all the answers? In essence, can someone be taught to reveal their humanity?

Is it possible to teach the mindset that believes failure is life’s best teacher even though schools preach the opposite?

The answer to all of those questions is no, and that’s why education reform is limited to scripted lessons that hope to prepare more students to correctly fill in the bubbles on standardized tests. And that’s the kind of reform that is destined to fail.

Experience has taught me that great teaching is more art than science. We’ve all had teachers who broke the mold, who followed their own path despite working in a system that encourages conformity. The shame of it all is that we didn’t have more of them.


John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.