This week, I encountered a teacher who has become frustrated with himself and the work that he does. For reasons I don’t quite understand, he seems to feel that in order to be successful at the art of teaching, he must also be an expert within that field. I tried my best to explain to him why this is not necessary, but I don’t think I reached him. Because I know he reads my articles, I’m addressing this here, but I’m hopeful that other teachers who feel the same way will be encouraged also.
In my lifetime, I’ve had teachers who ranged in skill level between the unbelievably incredible all the way to “should never darken the door of a classroom.” Some of those teachers have been so inspiring that they completely altered my way of thinking forever. Others have provided numerous reasons to visit the lavatory or take a nap.
Because of the way I’ve always observed teachers as they teach, I’ve learned a great deal about this craft. The skill level it takes to be a great teacher, or even a good teacher, is astronomical. It takes much more than just being knowledgeable of the subject matter. You also have to understand how the learner learns, how to break down difficult and complex tasks into smaller, achievable steps, and you must have the patience of Job. Those are just a few of the requirements necessary; there are far too many to list here.
My teacher friend has each of these skills, but he doesn’t think so. In his field, he is the equivalent of an elementary school teacher. In his environment there are few teachers around who are doing the same job (and most of those who do are bad at it). Most of his colleagues in the field could be considered middle and high school level teachers. Recently, he has encountered the types of teachers similar to those at the collegiate and post-graduate level. After a conversation with him, I felt that he was trying to compare himself to those teachers. Oh, how I wish he would not! There are so many faults with this.
First, when we compare ourselves to others, we most often compare our very worst to their very best. I, too, have been guilty of this, even though I know that it accomplishes nothing more than making me feel defeated. Second, when we compare ourselves, we often forget that others may have years more experience or a different skill set than we have. So we try to take someone who is naturally gifted at something and wonder why we aren’t able to accomplish as much in the same field as they are. The years of experience someone has spent studying their craft cannot be overestimated. While it doesn’t always equal success, it can result in a higher level of achievement.
The other thing that concerns me about my friend is that he seems to think that because he is “only” an elementary school level teacher, he is not as valuable as the upper level teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth! NOTHING! Think for a moment about the elementary school teacher who taught you to read. He or she must have done well at their craft, or you would not have been able to read this essay. How is that teacher less valuable than the teacher who taught me to compute algebraic equations? It was an elementary school teacher who taught me that a subject, verb, and appropriate modifiers were necessary to construct a sentence. How exactly is the high school level teacher who taught me how to interpret Shakespeare more significant?
Any decent study of the importance of education will address the integral nature of the educational foundation. What happens in the first few years of learning will impact everything the student learns as they mature, either for the good or bad. The students who were not adequately taught to compute simple mathematical problems when they were young are now the clerks at the fast food restaurant who can’t make correct change when their register doesn’t work.
Teaching at the beginning level is not easy, though. In order for students to learn a new skill, the teacher must have an arsenal of means to share the same information in a thousand different ways, only one of which will make sense to the learner. No two students fit into the same cookie cutter mold. This requires an unfathomable amount of patience, even more if the new learners are adults rather than children.
When adults are learning a new skill, they also have an arsenal of “stuff” that keeps them from learning it. Will their personal life prohibit them from practicing the skill as often as needed? Will past failures limit their willingness to try new things? Will they be discouraged by an unkind word from someone they respect? Will they have a multitude of seemingly reasonable excuses to miss classes? Will events in their life prohibit them from being completely focused while you are trying to instruct them? While these are often problems identified in young learners, adults have them in greater amounts due only to our age.
Dear friend, fellow teacher, do not be discouraged! If you want to get better at what you do, and you should, then study your craft more. Take classes, schedule private sessions, read, and study. One of my own great weaknesses has been in “spreading myself too thin.” By trying to be successful at many things, I become only average at all of them. This may be an issue for you also.
If you want to be really good at something, then invest in yourself and your craft. In case no one has ever told you this, you are worth the investment in you. I’ve invested in you for years because I believe in your value. Unless and until you give me reason to change my mind, I will never stop. While a lack of innate skills may prohibit you from being as successful in your chosen field as you would like, it does not diminish your ability to teach the subject. And teaching is a very valuable art.
As a young college student, someone tried to dissuade me from becoming a teacher with the miserable saying, “Those who can’t, teach.” This almost made me change my major. I wanted to be very good at whatever I did, and this horrid statement devalued the gift, art, and science of teaching. With almost 30 years of professional teaching on my resume, I can say unapologetically that teachers are some of the most talented people to grace this planet. No doctor, lawyer, businessman, movie star, singer, professional truck driver, manager, seamstress, Waffle House waitress, rocket scientist, author, or dancer would be where they are today without a great teacher who set the foundation of their education.
Thank you, sweet friend, for being a great teacher.