Monday, January 5, 2015

Why I Will Never Be a Great Teacher


It's Christmas break. I'm halfway through my 16th year of teaching.

I thought I would be better at this by now.

Oh, don't get me wrong. I know I'm a good teacher. I accepted that after the first decade or so. (But even that was hard for a Dutch Calvinist, it's in my cultural DNA to not think too highly of myself--total depravity and all that.)

The thing is, I'd love to be a GREAT teacher!

How do you become great? I read a lot. I try new things. I refine things that are working well. I stop doing things that are clearly ineffective. I talk to colleagues and find out what they are doing that engages their students. I reflect on my own teaching practice.

Am I better at this than I used to be?


But am I "great?"


And while I keep working on it, striving to improve, I'm not sure I'll ever be a great teacher.



I had a coffee meeting with two colleagues this morning and our conversation drifted to what we in the field of Education call "teacher induction." Teacher induction is all about introducing folks who are new to the profession to the ins-and-outs of helping other people learn. Because while individual instructors have their own "moves" in the classroom, there are some universals to what good teaching looks like, and there are ways we can help teachers learn to be more effective at plying their craft.

Of course, PreK-12 teachers generally come through some sort of a teacher preparation program (I feel tremendously blessed to be an instructor in such a program) and while this pre-service training is incredibly valuable and important, I would say that there are some parts of the job that you just can't fully understand and "own" until you are in the profession. This doesn't diminish the importance of pre-service preparation at all, in my mind at least; in fact, I think it just means that schools have to have a deliberate plan to extend this pre-service training through the first few years of professional teaching. And that's what teacher induction is really all about.

In my conversation with colleagues this morning, we started talking about our own induction into teaching in higher education, and we agreed that it's just as important to have a "teacher induction" program for faculty in higher ed, and perhaps even more so, since many have never been specifically trained in pedagogy.

And, to put it bluntly, knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach are simply not the same thing.


Drive by Dan Pink

Drive, by Dan Pink, is one of my favorite books. 

In the book, Pink explores motivation, and ways to increase motivation. While not written explicitly for an audience of educators, I think there is much a mindful teacher can glean from his exploration.

In particular, Pink notes three elements that increase an individual's motivation:

  1. Autonomy - having the ability to make decisions about when, where, how, and with whom you will conduct your work,
  2. Mastery - having the opportunity to strive for improvement, to learn, to practice, to get better, and
  3. Purpose - working for something important, something that makes a difference and is greater than yourself.

I remember the first time I read Drive, and thinking, "Well...duh!" But I wonder sometimes about the way we structure institutions. How often--in school, for example--do individuals have the chance to work autonomously, aiming for mastery, and in the service of a valuable purpose? I'm sure you can think of examples, but I wonder if those are the exceptions, rather than the norm?



I'm especially thinking about the second characteristic of motivation Pink mentions: Mastery.

Can I get better?

Do I want to get better?

That question is, I think, the key.

And perhaps that is the real key for a teacher induction program: how do we help new teachers get better at the complex tasks of teaching? And how do we do this in a way that is neither overwhelming ("Hey, since you're new here, let's make a lot more work for you in the hope that it will make you a better teacher!") nor insulting ("You know, you're really bad as a new instructor...let me tell you how to do it.")

How can we inspire new educators to develop from where they currently stand and work toward mastery?

For that matter, how can we inspire experienced educators to continue to learn, to continue to develop in their teaching practices? 



I know that I am a good teacher. I would love to become a great teacher. I know there is room for me to get better.

But I only know my own mind.

I assume that other teachers want to get better as well.

But do they? Are they willing to keep learning? To reflect on their current practices and perhaps make changes?

I am not talking about innovation for the sake of innovation. I am talking about becoming a reflective practitioner--continuing to examine my teaching practice, taking note of areas that are strong and working well, and also taking note of areas that I can continue to improve.

I hope that all educators--at all levels, from preschool through graduate school--would want to develop reflective practices and strive for continuous improvement.



The curved line here is an asymptote.
(That's not a bad word...really.)
This is an asymptote. (A horizontal asymptote, to be specific.) Notice that the curve approaches the dashed line, but never touches it.

In mathematics, an asymptote is a curve that approaches a line, and might come infintesitimly close to the line, but it never actually intersects the line. This is the concept of a "limit" in mathematics, right? As x approaches infinity, y gets closer and closer and closer...but never quite reaches that point...

I've come to believe that "great teaching" is an asymptote. I can improve. I can keep learning. I can experiment, and explore, and examine myself. I can capitalize on what is good in my teaching practice, and minimize what is bad.

But can I ever hit "great?"

I don't think so.

My trajectory as an instructor might come closer and closer to greatness, but I don't think I'll ever arrive there, at least not on this side of glory.

But I'm not going to let that stop me from striving for greatness.



Perhaps that would be the best I could hope for in a teacher induction program: a community of colleagues at different stages in their professional careers who would be interested in sharing their experiences.

Telling our stories honestly.

Listening to each other mindfully.

Observing each other thoughtfully.

Questioning graciously.

Encouraging supportively.

I think that participating in this kind of community of practice could be a real blessing for everyone involved, and while great teaching may be an asymptote, supporting each other in this way might be a way to help us all move a little closer toward mastery.


  1. Thanks for writing this, Dave. As I tweeted earlier, so much of this resonates with me. I first started thinking about this idea when I met a "State Teacher of the Year." This person was a wonderful teacher, but the idea of an all-star teacher didn't sit quite right with me.

    Mastery, motivation, and growth are certainly key ingredients, and essential to my personal learning journey. I've been humbled by my attempts to be a great teacher, but I've found relief and new areas for growth with the following realization: even if I were to reach that elusive line of greatness (breaking the horizontal asymptote curve), it still wouldn't be enough because I'm still a finite human. What I realized was that, since so much of teaching is about relationship, even if I were the perfect teacher and the perfect me, I still would not perfectly reach all students. Even perfect, I am unable to be all things to all students because I am not infinitely gifted and talented.

    How is this relieving? Well, it meant that I could continue to strive to be better without the pressure of thinking that education would be perfect if only I could be perfect. I'm not sure I've adequately expressed the idea; however, it helped me see the value of other teachers and their unique gifts and talents. Perhaps I will never be a great teacher, but I could definitely be part of a great staff. I could be an important part of making the staff great, and they could be the only way that I would ever approach greatness. In short, if success for every student is the measure of teacher success, then there is no such thing as a great teacher, but I believe in the existence of a great staff.

    For me, this places a new spin and a higher priority on collaboration.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Scott! Your point about being part of a great staff really hit home with me. I was reading 1 Corinthians 12 the other day ("Now the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though its parts are many, they form one body." etc...) The truth of the matter is, I don't think any of us has all the gifts needed to be great at everything. We need each other, and we need to learn to trust and rely on each other. Just as in the body, you might have a strong biceps, all by itself, its strength becomes weakness: once the elbow is flexed, it can't do anything else. It needs a strong triceps working with it to extend the arm again! Our strength, our "greatness" can't be individual. Thanks for further stirring my thinking!