Teaching: Nature or Nurture?

January 7, 2008 at 11:36 pm 1 comment

The bloggers at The Faculty Room recently posed, and pondered, the question of whether great teachers are born or made. In their initial question, they considered Stephen King’s quotation about writing:

I don’t believe writers can be made… the equipment comes with the original package.

Several educators responded to the question, and I was somewhat surprised to see how universally they rejected the idea that great teachers are “born that way.”One person related a conversation with an artist, who was offended at the idea that anyone could become an artist, with proper training.

I don’t agree that King’s statement is true of teachers, but I do think that teachers are in part born with the necessary equipment. I’m of the opinion that there has to be both,  that a teacher has to be both born and made.

I hold no claims as an artist, and I can’t even properly claim to be an educator (yet). But I’m immersed in the world of educators, and my sister is an artist, and I’m very much a part of the music community. Consequently, I’ve come to realize something about talent (when it comes to artistic pursuits) that I believe probably applies to everything, particularly an art-science like teaching.

I’ve been friends with and worked with music majors and professors at the local university for nearly a decade, and I’ve come to realize that there are four kinds of musicians:

  • those with exceptional natural talent
  • those with profound work ethic and desire to succeed
  • those with neither of the above
  • those with both

Now, the kids that come in with a ton of natural talent move immediately to the top of the heap. They become the golden children of the department. Everyone talks about them. They get scholarships, first chairs, solos. And there are those in this category who can maintain that momentum, who can ride on their sheer talent right through the program and emerge, gilded, on the other side. Most, however, quickly reach the limit of their natural abilities and find that they lack the ability or desire to work for improvement. These kids begin to fall from their lofty positions and, sadly, many of them duck out of the program before their weaknesses can be exposed. (It’s never their fault that they drop out, either – it’s always an unfair professor, or a better opportunity, or a family problem.)

Then there’s the kids who aren’t terribly talented – some of them are really untalented, as a matter of fact – who come in, usually knowing that they’re not particularly good, but determined to do whatever it takes to get better and graduate. These students are visible in the department as well, not because they’re in first chair, but because they seem to have moved in to the music building. They work as music librarians, professor assistants, janitors, whatever job they can get that will get them closer access to the professors and greater access to the building. They spend unhealthy amounts of time in the practice rooms, pushing past hand cramps and bleeding lips, running scales until the night security kicks them out. In the highly competitive music department, however, most of these students ultimately find they can’t keep up with their more talented peers. Unlike the students previously discussed, however, these students generally don’t drop out. They choose a less competitive emphasis – music ed or business rather than performance – and put down roots in second part, never gaining the glory but usually garnering respect.

The students who come to the department with neither talent nor dedication are usually kids who liked band in high school, came to college by default, and – because they could think of nothing else they enjoyed – signed up as music majors. They last a year or two before dropping out of school or switching majors to something more along their true interests.

And finally… there are the kids who come in with both natural talent and the ability and desire to work hard for their art. These students have a head start on most of their peers, but they’ll capitalize on that head start by hitting the ground running. Rather than assume that their ability will carry them through a playing test or rehearsal, they spend the hours they need to perfect a piece. And when they’ve got something licked, they go out finding bigger challenges so that they are constantly increasing their range, dexterity, and musicality. These students will Make It, and they inequitably have the best chance of any of the students of having a lasting and fulfilling career in music.

I’ve just spent 570 words talking about music majors, and here you thought I was going to talk about teachers! Well, I am.

It seems most of the educators at The Faculty Room argue that excellent teachers are made, that the concept of a “born teacher” is pretty much a myth. I conditionally disagree. I believe that, like musicians – or artists, or athletes, or anything else that requires this kind of talent and dedication – the best teachers combine both natural talent and a strong work ethic.

As a student in the “How to Teach” classes at my university, I’ve met my fair share of people who were born with a lot of natural talent for teaching. They had charisma, intelligence, humor, energy, creative ideas, love of children – everything we love to see in our teachers but can’t teach in schools. Not all of these people, however, were interested in learning the theory and methodology that would make them more highly skilled educators. They were content to rest on their inherent ability, confident in their belief that they were smarter than the unit planning and classroom management textbooks, that once they got into the classroom they’d instantaneously become master teachers.

I also met many people who had disadvantages in the teacher education program. Some were shy, or stoic, or older, or younger. Some had physical impairments that made interacting with students challenging, and others had speech impediments that made leading a class difficult. Some were not especially bright or academically strong; some were not well-read. Many of these people, however, worked tirelessly to overcome their deficits and find a way to be the most successful teacher they could be.

My hypothesis (and please don’t lynch me!): Teaching is a less competitive career choice than music or sports, and I feel that fewer people will fail in this field than do in the music department. However, I suspect that part of the high teacher turnover we see early in careers may be a reflection of the music student phenomenon: those who are talented but unwilling to work, and those who are willing to work but lack ability, will eventually run out of steam and seek a path of less resistance. Those teachers who bring both natural talent and the willingness to learn and work, however, are more likely to achieve success and fulfillment in their career.

(This is absolutely not to say that teachers who leave the profession are untalented or lazy. The urge to change paths strikes everyone without regard to competence. I’m just saying that it seems possible that there may be a correlation.)

Work and training plays a major role, and I do believe that anyone with the desire can become a very good teacher. But ability is also important, and I think that talent can mark the line between a good teacher and a great teacher. To discount natural talent in – well, probably anything – is a mistake. And talent unfortified is a waste.


Entry filed under: BRAINCLOUDS, MISCELLANEOUS. Tags: .

What Teachers Make Book Challenges Strike Close to Home

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. silverfoot  |  January 8, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Like you, I have one foot in the performing arts (at least i used to), and one foot in the teaching profession. And I’m not sure I see anything the least bit controversial here; you make several reasonable points. For example:

    Most, however, quickly reach the limit of their natural abilities and find that they lack the ability or desire to work for improvement.

    strikes me as significant. The problem with being ‘born’ with talent is that, for a certain amount of time, everything is ‘easy.’ You don’t have to work for it. And when that day comes where you have to push yourself a little harder to stay ‘the best,’ it’s very easy to just coast, or take the path of least resistance. This is why I’m not a World Class Juggler, for example. I’m pretty good, for an amateur, but I don’t have the drive or desire to push myself to be the best. As for this stuff:

    charisma, intelligence, humor, energy, creative ideas

    I think most who have them are born with it, but I think they can be learned, too. I credit a background in theatre sports for teaching me to be comfortable enough to be those things in public, around strangers. More than that, I think a background in the arts tends to cultivate and reward these sorts of qualities – it’s a dialectic: people who have those qualities are drawn to those areas, but being in those areas helps to develop and reinforce those qualities.

    At the end of the day, you can have all the talent you want, but the thing that separates the merely good from the truly great is the ability, dedication, and desire to turn that talent into skill. And I think that holds true of all professions.


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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

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