Having been a teacher for over 30 years I’ve met a lot of my fellow educators. A surprisingly high number of them have been, in so far as I could tell, excellent at their jobs. Bad teachers tend to either be weeded out or among their many who quit early on. Most teachers who survive the first few years end up being lifers. Veteran teachers are usually quite good, with the obvious exception of the burn-outs you run across now and again. Burn-outs are the worst because they no longer posses the main ingredients necessary to be a good teacher: passion, inspiration and an ability and willingness to adapt and learn. They are old dogs that have no interest in new tricks nor anything else other than their forthcoming retirements. Thankfully they are, again in my experience, few in number.
So what kind of people become teachers?
Many teachers commit to the career while in college and some even before. They have the calling. These are people who usually end up being dedicated, hard-working teachers who often become department heads, mentors and members of all manner of committees. Some with the calling don’t make it. The disciplinary issues that can plague particular schools prove too much for them and they either leave the profession entirely or sink to the very bottom and teach in private schools.
There is an offshoot of this kind of teacher and that is the individual who in college sets out to study a particular field in-depth, such as in the natural or social sciences, with an aim to do graduate work and pursue a career in research or academia. They enjoy their field of study but may find it too onerous or time-consuming or they see how competitive and crowded their field is and decide to use their love of a particular subject to become a teacher. It’s not what they originally had in mind but it will do, offering as it does reasonable hours, decent pay and benefits. Some of these folks find a passion for teaching and become whiz bang teachers and some quit or are fired within a couple of years either because their love of the subject matter far exceeds their desire and patience to teach it or because they never really had their heart in teaching.
Then you have the dreamers. Those are people who started off pursuing a dream career, usually in the arts, such as acting, writing, being an artist or musician. At some point they give up on their dream, usually owing to a combination of constant rejections and/or mounting debt. Sometimes they merely have a desire to settle down and perhaps raise a family. Their skills were all associated with their dream career and they didn’t want to go into the private sector and feel like a cog in a wheel. They turn to teaching in part because they can teach in their area of expertise and passion. Failed musicians became music teachers, failed novelists became English teachers, failed artists become art teachers. There are also failed athletes who teach P.E. These individuals can find a new life and a new source of inspiration in teaching, plus the time to hone their particular craft in off hours. They can become great teachers. They can also be instant flame outs, ill-suited to handle the daily grind of teaching and accompanying discipline issues.
Another kind of teacher is the second career person. Unlike the dreamers they succeeded in their initial pursuit, be it in business, social services, the military or anything else. But they want something more. They want to give back. They want to help young people. They want to share their wisdom. They quit their jobs, get a teaching credential and with great zeal go into education. For many of them it is a shock to see the realities of teaching. The discipline, the constant meetings, the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the pressure. They are likely to run screaming back to their old job in a nano second. But they are also likely to have found just what they were looking for and become happy and dedicated and not incidentally, excellent teachers.
In addition to people who take different paths into teaching there are different types of teachers. For example there is the craftsperson. This is someone who plans meticulously, putting together — if you’ll excuse the inadvertent pun — textbook lessons. These are teachers who take notes at in-services, workshops and staff development days. They read the latest literature on teaching and study the newest educational research. They are by-the-book teachers who present proven lessons designed to reach all manner of student and learning styles. On paper they are excellent teachers and usually are in reality too, but many of them are dry as dust and despite their efforts bore their young charges to death. A well-crafted lesson presented by a robot is only going to reach certain students, usually excluding those who need it most. They are revered by administrators, if not so much by students.
At the other end is the performer. Their lessons can be threadbare on material and may defy convention. Their lessons don’t come straight out of a teacher’s guide book and don’t include pre-made handouts. But they can be entertaining and inspiring to students. The performer is invariably a captivating speaker with a vivid imagination who concocts innovative lessons. Sometimes, however, these lessons fail spectacularly or are much heavier on fun than on actual learning. If the performer stays on long enough they usually learn to cut down on the razzamatazz and bring a little bit more method to their madness. They often run afoul of administrators, but can be very popular with students.
The innovator is a cross between the crafts person and the performer. Here is a teacher who will take your basic pre-fab lesson and breath life into it. These are generally the best teachers in any school. They adhere to the state curriculum and reach all variety of learner and utilize given materials but they spice it up with liberal dashes of creativity. Administrators are satisfied and students are usually pleased.
There are also different types of disciplinarians. Some teachers are martinets, they have strict rules which are rigidly and ruthlessly enforced without exception. Such teachers inspire more fear than respect but then again students toe the line. Administrators love this kind of teacher — provided they don’t go too far. Some teachers practice tough love, mixing compassion and counseling with a strict enforcement of the rules. While not letting students cross certain boundaries, they also offer encouragement and rehabilitation to their errant charges. Assuming their blend of toughness and kindness is adequately and equally administered they can find favor with administrators and students alike. Some teachers paradoxically find administering discipline and undisciplined students to be too much of a bother. Their hope is that the excellence of the lesson will distract students from wanting to act out. This often leads to frustration as the teacher can neither tolerate nor affectively combat unruly students. Their classes can be a mess. Students often like these teachers but don’t respect them. Administrators are eternally frustrated by them. Toe be good at discipline a teacher must neither be a softie or a hot head.
Teachers tend to be more humble than people in a lot of other professions. I've rarely come across a good teacher who was arrogant or bragged about their success with a particular lesson, class or student. This is in part because teaching is a daily grind. If you nail a lesson during first period on Tuesday you've got second period coming up not to mention the rest of the week. There's no time for patting oneself on the back. Good teachers are also too pre-occupied with the the success of their students to massage their own egos.
All variety of teachers are aware of one salient fact: there are all variety of students too. Perhaps that's a topic for another post.