Are great teachers born or made?

Monday, August 18, 2014

One of the best teachers in Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher, uses an analogy to convey the intricacy and difficulty of her craft. “Every single time I get on a plane,” she says, “I’m really glad that the plane is not being flown by someone who just always loved planes … But that’s what we do in this country. We take people who are committed to children, and we say ... work on it, figure it out.”

This is just one of many comparisons that teachers make in Green’s book. They also liken their profession to surgery, general medicine, nursing, professional athletics, and even chamber music. The metaphors converge on the same point: Not only is teaching technically demanding, its complex component skills can be studied, isolated, practiced, and ultimately improved. Teaching, in short, can be taught.

Such a claim might not seem particularly controversial, but popular culture promotes the idea that good teachers possess a kind of magical, ineffable charisma. An entire genre of films, from Stand and Deliver to Freedom Writers, presents teachers as alchemists, working miracles of transformation not only through dedication but through brilliance and pure charm.

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