Sunday, August 14, 2016

Born To Teach

The romantic notion has always been there, and plenty of teachers feed into it-- some people are just born teachers.

But the belief in born teachers has two seriously destructive side effects, one of which is becoming obvious and the other, perhaps less so.


If teachers are born and not made, then teacher certification programs are a waste of time. A smart person with an ivy league degree and five weeks of training could be a teacher, right? The belief also manifests in the argument that we should open the teaching profession to all sorts of alternative certification programs because that guy working as a civil engineer or that woman working as a computer programmer-- it could be that they are just born teachers who need the chance to put their God-given gift to work.

This line of reasoning is reaching its predictable conclusion in places like Utah, the latest state to deal with its teacher "shortage" by letting any warm body with a college degree walk into a classroom.

There is a similar belief out there-- the belief that really, nobody is actually a born or trained teacher because teaching can actually be reduced to a simple set of tasks that anyone can perform. We've got this great unit-in-a-box from Pearson, and any warm body can follow the instructions. We've got this super-duper adaptive learning software from the computer, and we barely need an adult human in the room at all. So when you come right down to it, teaching isn't anything special and everyone is born with the necessary capabilities.

If there is no training component to teaching, nothing to learn about the material or child development or educational techniques or pedagogy or instruction, then we can either stick any meat widget in a classroom, or, if we believe there's a gift, we don't so much need a training program as we need a method of sifting through the general population to find the people with the teacher gene, the inherited gift. Maybe a sorting hat.


We've seen the effects in training and the general assault on the profession as one that requires training and professionalism. But we're seeing another effect as well. Here's how the line of reasoning goes.

If Chris is Born To Teach, then that's what Chris is going to do. And that means that as employers, as policymakers, as contract negotiators, we don't ever have to think about making the job attractive to Chris. Chris was born a teacher, so it's not necessary to do anything to convince Chris to be a teacher or stay a teacher.

If teachers are Born To Teach, then the education field is not, say, competing with law and medicine and taxidermy and engineering and any number of other professional fields that Chris might be perfectly well-suited for.

If teachers are Born To Teach, nobody ever has to deal with them while thinking, "Damn, if we screw this up, they might all just leave and go do something else for a living."

If teachers are Born To Teach, they are essentially helpless, trapped by their inborn proclivity to settle for whatever they are offered because surely they can never choose to leave a classroom (and if they do, that just proves they weren't really born to be teachers).

This underlying assumption-- that teachers can't be anything else, can't leave, can't choose another profession-- underlies everything from contract negotiations to policy design.


Even now, as state leaders across the country scratch their heads at the ongoing teacher shortage, we see this set of assumptions in play. And it's just stupid. The convenience stores in my town understand that nobody has to work for them, and when people don't want to work for them, they have to make the job more appealing to get people to apply for a position-- or stay in the position they have.

But no matter how many times teachers say some version of, "You know, I don't have to do this. I can make a living some other way," education leaders don't hear it.

After all, teachers are Born To Teach. What else would they do?

Well, we're finding out.

Because the answer is-- Lot's of things. Things that pay well enough to support a family. Things that allow the autonomy to exercise professional judgment, to use your brain and your wits. Things that get you to a work environment where you are treated with respect and like a grownup.

What kind of difference would it make if, in policy discussion, we never used the word "teacher" again. What difference would it make if we started talking about people, and about how to encourage people to get the training needed to teach well, and about how to keep those people working in the classroom, and just generally stopped talking about "teacher" as if that were a specific type of meat widget that has no control over its purpose.

I love teaching. I have the best job in the world, and I wouldn't trade a second of my career (well, maybe a couple of seconds) for anything. It fits me so well, and makes me feel as if every part of who I am creates a clear and vivid line that points directly at that classroom. But I also believe that it does take a level of dedication and training and hard work and professionalism and study and growth to teach and to teach well.  I also believe that we have to stop talking about teachers like they are a special brand of unicorn that arrives shining magically from the moment they emerge from the womb. The idea that people are Born To Teach hurts us as a profession, it hurts the schools where we work, it hurts the students who are waiting to be taught, and these days, it is hurting us as a nation.


  1. If teaching is that simple then why do we need complicated evaluation systems like Marzano to rate teacher effectiveness? Gotta make sure that unicorn is magical. Just saying

  2. here's the best teacher evaluation system ever . . . go to any school, pull aside x number of kids and ask them who the best teachers are. contrary to popular belief, kids generally do NOT like teachers who are "easy" on them. kids are basically honest in their evaluations, and there's not a "Pearson" mark on 'em.

  3. The whole "born to" thing has annoyed me for years.

    Some people who were "born to stand-up comedy" were probably just as born to teach.

    Even with the extremely gifted outliers in a field would be "born to" in another, but related field. My fav example: Randy Moss "born as a wide receiver". If he had resided in another country, he would've been world class in the sprint, long jump and short hurdle events. In the US, football was the best paying.

    "Born-to-teachers"...more $$$ to made as corporate trainers, some types of sales, some forms of practicing law, entertainment, etc, etc.

    Peter has one great point...the so-called 'magic hand' does affect the availability of warm bodies for the classroom.