Are Great Teachers Born or Made?

A thoughtful new book argues that teaching is a craft anyone can learn. But there's a big difference between competence and excellence. 
Could the right training transform Ferris Bueller's teacher into Jaime Escalante? (Paramount Pictures)

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.

There have been countless efforts to strip away this mystique. Teach for America presents prospective teachers with a document listing the 24 elements of good teaching. Educator and best-selling author Doug Lemov spent years compiling the “Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices” featured in his book Teach Like a Champion.

Others have been even more exhaustive: Magdalene Lampert, a longtime trainer of teachers, wrote a dense and detailed 500-page book that documents a single year inside a classroom. The most ambitious of these efforts bring to mind the Jorge Luis Borges short story “On Exactitude In Science,” in which cartographers try to design maps so precise that they describe the terrain down to the most infinitesimal point.

Green takes a more nuanced approach, emphasizing that there is no single magic method that can transform any teacher. Instead, she argues for the teachability of teaching with a host of case studies, research findings, and cross-cultural comparisons. Her conclusions are persuasive, but only to a point. A huge gulf still separates competence from excellence. Can we expect that even the best training will transform a significant number of teachers into the pedagogical equivalents of Kobe Bryant?

It's a worthwhile question, especially since a comparison between teachers and pro athletes runs throughout Green's book. Athletes analyze game film to study what worked in different situations and apply that knowledge when similar circumstances arise in the future. Green tells stories about teachers in Japan who engage in frequent and intense scrutiny of their own practices, arguing convincingly that structured weekly study of filmed lessons would benefit American teachers tremendously.

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Nick Romeo writes regularly for The Daily Beast and The Christian Science Monitor. He has written also for Rolling StoneThe Times Literary Supplement, and The Boston Globe, and is the author of the book Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys.

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