Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids

“Here’s the problem with the whole ‘great teacher’ idea,” Roxanna Elden tells me.  We’re about halfway through a free-wheeling conversation that has covered everything from TFA to teacher evaluations.  I became a groupie after reading her book, See Me After Class, which she explains is “not Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul” but more like “Hard Liquor for the Teacher’s Soul” because that’s what she believes new teachers need: a shot of real-world, practical advice that’s grounded in common sense and years of classroom experience.

Roxanna serves her advice for brand-new teachers straight up, for example: “After a long, unrewarding day of teaching, suggestions like “Let them know you care’ or ‘Try making it fun’ from people who’ve never taught will make you want to rip off your head—or theirs—and roll it down the street like a bowling ball” or my favorite observation, “I am still waiting to see an ‘inspiring teacher’ movie in which the teacher grades papers.”

See what I mean?  Obviously, I have to ask her opinion about what makes a great teacher.  Roxanna doesn’t hold back.  “I feel like the narrative of the great teacher encourages people to try to cast themselves as superhero great teachers in a school where they have to be the only bright lights in the dark sea of education,” she says, articulating what I’ve been struggling to express for a long time.  She’s dubious about teachers who publish Messianic tales of their own inspirational work.  “To me, it suggests that they need to tell this story about themselves,” she observes, adding that these heroic tales are neither realistic nor helpful.

“The problem is, the thing that makes somebody ‘great’ is often hard to copy.  It can even be a questionable personality trait, sometimes somebody who’s codependent, sometimes a person who’s way too wrapped up in other people’s business,” she says, describing in a nutshell the main character in virtually every inspirational teacher movie I’ve ever seen—and more than a couple of real-world teachers I’ve known over the years.  To be honest, I recognize aspects of my first-year-teacher self in Roxanna’s description, not that I was great.  But it was certainly a version of what I was attempting.  And it was definitely part of what burned me out.

In Roxanna’s view, these hero teachers can be important in certain students’ lives–“someone with no boundaries is going to be a great teacher to a student who really needs someone to cross those boundaries to save her life”—but should in no way be role models for the profession.  “I have a problem with the entire model of saying if you’re getting a full night’s sleep you don’t care about kids,” she says bluntly.  “I also have a problem with the related theme of work-life balance is for lazy racists. You want these things to be sustainable.  This is a job and it’s a job that you want people to be good at.  And ‘good’ teachers are the ones who make up the majority of the profession.  That’s what we should be focusing on.”

Roxanna’s opinions were formed from years of teaching experience, first in elementary school, then as a high school English teacher in Miami.  A TFA alum, she is characteristically sensible and irreverent about the controversy surrounding the program.  Since she’d always wanted to be a teacher, TFA speeded up the process for her after college.  “People complain about TFA training but they also complain about the training they get in education programs.  I feel like new teachers in general have a lot more in common than they have differences.  I’m not sure that anything can prepare you for teaching,” she says.  “It would probably help you more if someone said ‘these are the ten things you need to know how to do.’”

Like me, Roxanna is skeptical that there is any one model of a great teacher.  “I think we’re in danger of trying to institutionalize one or two things that made one or two teachers great and then trying to force other teachers to do those things,” she says.  But for her, that systemization has serious casualties for students in terms of what they might gain from individual teachers.

She points to the current obsession for squeezing value out of every second of class time.  “One great teacher might manage to squeeze a ton of knowledge into the day, but when you all of a sudden try to get your entire staff to squeeze an extra thirty minutes a year out of making sure that every student closes their book using a bookmark on page thirty, you’re taking a teacher who might good at listening and forcing them to use time that they might have used to ask questions about the subject matter or found time for creativity and spontenaiety.  You’re making them bad at your version of goodness.”

Over the years, she’s developed her own definition of what makes a great teacher—a definition she feels is achievable and sustainable over a long career.  “A great teacher is a teacher who is adequate at everything, good at the things that affect their instruction, great at things that only they can be great at,” she says.

More specifically, in her view, to be a great teacher, you should be:

Adequate at doing required paperwork, attending professional development and not making enemies among the staff

Good at classroom management, grading, getting students feedback for their work and planning lessons

Great at some type of spark that belongs to you, your special unique gift, whether it’s your passion for your subject, your innovative lessons, your inspirational leadership, your sense of humor, your ability to listen, your meticulous attention to detail.  Not all of these.  One or two of these.

In other words, according to Roxanna, once a teacher has mastered the basics of “adequate” and “good,” which most teachers have after a couple of years, instead of demanding that teachers become excellent at all of the items on the “great” list, it would be more productive if those teachers built on their unique personal strengths.  As Roxanna points out, no one teacher is going to be a perfect fit for every student.  She gives as an example a high-energy, brilliant AP teacher whose students are inspired to work hard to impress her—but those students tend to like driven, passionate teachers.  As a contrast, she mentions an equally great Special Ed teacher whose gentle patience and ability to connect kids to resources like health care and housing have been a lifeline for countless students who needed that support.  “The things that make you great as a teacher are the things that make you yourself,” she observes.

Finally, if teachers are going to be held to standards, the school districts need to hold up their end of the bargain.  “They need to create sustainable working conditions instead of marching in with a rubric every month,” she says.  “Make sure we have copiers that work.  Make sure our internet connection doesn’t crash.  Have a plan for the kid who’s acting out and out of control.  If you don’t do those things, if you focus your effort over and over on reminding me that nothing should get in my way and there are no excuses…that’s not helping students.  The thing is, teacher working conditions are the same thing as student learning conditions.”

All I can say is, Halleluiah, sister. 



11 thoughts on “Why the ‘Great Teacher’ Myth Doesn’t Help Kids”

  1. The view of a “great teacher”at the end of the post is very reasonable and realistic. Often trying to do too much causes an implosion where very little ends up getting done well.

  2. “‘good’ teachers are the ones who make up the majority of the profession. That’s what we should be focusing on.” I love this quote. Too often we have completely unrealistic expectations of teachers. I want teachers to care deeply about their students. I want them to feel a sense of urgency, but also to be able to put their jobs in perspective and, as you say, focus on what they can improve. Burn out isn’t good for anyone. Part of the trick is being able to see the big picture of teaching and not get caught in the tiny details.

  3. I grew up around the military, and teaching has a lot in common with it. It’s a lifestyle dedicated to a greater good, often around less than understanding people who, sadly, determine a lot about where we go and how we spend our time doing whatever it was we were sent to do. However, you don’t see those little stickers on the back of cars saying “support our teachers” and military recruiters are **much** more keen to place or train talented subject specialists than district HR departments. Yes, the trade-off would be not getting moved around constantly or shot at, but that difference is eroding, too.

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