Is one born a teacher?

I’ve read a nice article entitled “building a better teacher” and I had a nice talk today that started during our teacher development session and continued shortly after it. Are good teachers born like that? Is it something innate? Or is teaching a skill that can be taught and learned? As a teacher trainer, I guess there’s no other answer I could give than that it is possible for one to learn how to be a good teacher, even if one hasn’t got all it takes when his or her career is just starting. As a matter of fact, I have to believe in it – I myself have been constantly learning how I can hone my teaching in order to better foster learning. I even had the chance to talk to one of my first employers about that, and he actually confirmed to me that my first sample class was a bit of a disaster, but he said that he could see there was potential for training and development. I’m really grateful for having had that chance. I have learned a lot about the tricks of the trade while working there, and I don’t think I would be a teacher these days if it hadn’t been for that job.

Good teachers can be ‘created’, just like good professionals in any other area. Of course there are some people who excel at what they do with immense ease, and maybe aptitude and innateness have got something to do with that. If you take football, for instance, there aren’t many football players like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká or Ronaldinho in the world. There aren’t many singers whose voice is appreciated by nearly anyone. There aren’t many drivers like Michael Schumacher. These people may have an innate ability and have certainly found what they were supposed to do in life. If you ask them, they’ll say that it’s all the fruits of their labour and that they have to practice as hard as anyone, which, in my opinion, is true. What sets them apart from others, well, that’s something I can’t answer. But the thing is, there are many other very good football players who aren’t that well-known, but have decided to put their back into it and work really hard to be at the top of their game and be acknowledged as very good professionals. And the same is true for all professions, if you ask me.

Teaching is no different. Maybe there is such a thing as people who are cut out to be teachers and will be extremely successful at it with little effort. Others may be just as successful, but will have to work a bit harder at it. It may come across as cliché, but I believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Perhaps you will not be the most famous person who’s ever worked in your area, but you may definitely be great at it – whatever this it may be. What are the most important characteristics of a successful language teacher, then? I wouldn’t dare to claim to have an answer, as I don’t think such an answer has been found. This short quote from the article demonstrates it:

When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.”

However, I’ll allow myself to take a guess and see whether you agree with me or not.

Good language teachers should, regardless of training and development, be good at three things:

1. They should have a good command of the language – being knowledgeable seems to be one of the characteristics good teachers share.

2. They should have good people skills – good teachers seem to know how to talk to their students in a way that engages them. They know when it’s their turn to talk and to listen. Good teachers know that they can only talk when his or her students are listening, and they also know they have to listen and respond to learners.

3. They worry more about the product of their work, i.e. they make sure students are learning – the ultimate aim of lessons is learning, not teaching. Good teachers do what it takes to get the job done They don’t sulk if their it-took-me-3-hours-to-plan activity doesn’t work as planned and adapt easily to ensure learning.

The second item above is the most difficult to ‘train’, as it depends a lot more on the individual than on an external trainer. However, if all three are accompanied by a willingness to keep learning and being able to take criticism, then it’s feasible. Good teachers reflect on what they’ve been doing and are always looking for a better way to help their students learn.

What do you think? Can one learn how to teach, or is one born a teacher?

22 thoughts on “Is one born a teacher?

  1. I read something once, I think it was in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell which said it’s 10,000 hours. Whatever something is going to excel at, it takes a) talent or the existing skill + b)10,000 hours of time put in at excelling.

    Excellent article, Rick


    1. I guess we can quote Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”.

      Really happy to see you liked the post! 🙂

  2. That`s it. I also think like you .I`ve known teachers who have always been brilliant.. and others, who weren`t so good, but became very talented after having had the opportunity to exchange experience. working in co-ordination groups,swapshops…being trained.I think that ëxchanging” is the key word for development`.Congrats,Henrick…You are a serious teacher.We need more people like you…not only in the ELT area.

    1. I think the hardest part of any recruitment process is finding people who are really willing to commit and to grow professionally. If we can select these people, they’ll allow others to help them. I was very fortunate to have had the chance to work with many great educators who, because they were great EDUCATORS, were always happy to share, teach and advise those who were still learning what it takes to be a teacher. The problem is that the people who are trying to learn also have to do their share, right?!
      I know you were also very keen to the idea of sharing, collaborating, guiding and coaching… which is why all teachers who have had the chance to work with you only have wonderful things to say.
      Thanks for everything! 😉

  3. I’m not sure if good teachers are born, but by the time they enter the profession a combination of nature and nurture will have equipped them to become successful. I hate to say it, but I have dealt with teachers who just couldn’t do it… they didn’t have the social skills, the sensitivity, the charisma, to pull it off. We talked about this on my blog a little already, but take a smart person with a nice smile and a good ear, and in a few months they will be on the way to being a great teacher…..

    That is not to say that we can’t improve. You mention Christiano Ronaldo – many people say that his compatriot (and similar player) Ricardo Queresma is the better raw talent. But Ronaldo has an incredible focus and works so hard to succeed. Who can argue with Thomas Edison?

    1. Darren, I also have had my deal of people who just couldn’t do it and were too stubborn to accept they needed help. I’ll quote you on, “take a smart person with a nice smile and a good ear, and in a few months they will be on the way to being a great teacher”. Simple does it best. Teachers have to worry about so many things while in the classroom that many end up losing track of the basics – that you’re teaching another person, and not only the subject.

      I didn’t know that people said that about Ricardo Queresma, but it makes sense. Sometimes, when we know we’ve got what it takes, we don’t try as hard and are happy with being just average.

  4. Great article, and I really agree with your three conditions. I also very much agree with Darren’s point that there are some teachers out there who sort of just never ‘make it’ across that blurry line that separates good teachers from mediocre or constantly struggling ones. The characteristics Darren points out (and I completely agree with him) that can limit how far a teacher gets are interesting because they do basically come down to people skills. In this respect, it echoes your second main condition.

    As an in-house teacher trainer, this “people skills” issue has always intrigued me. Very few of the teachers I worked with had *no* (or very poor) people skills, but there were others who were great people and their natural people skills were suppressed/diverted by various stresses (not knowing the language well enough, lacking effective techniques, lacking confidence and self-assurance, subjected to pressurizing schedules or syllabuses, etc).

    I think the good people skills have to come first and be given a chance to shine very early on for newer teachers. (Most) learners will forgive and continue to want to learn from a good person who slips up with some language or activity issues, and these will develop over time in people who have good people skills to start with. However, learners are often far less forgiving of technically skillful teachers who are just not that enjoyable to be around, or who don’t appear to be able to connect with them at a personal level.

    In many ways I have to admit this formed essential criteria for me when choosing new teachers to come and work at my school. I aimed for easy-going people with good people skills over highly experienced or obviously extensively trained people who came across as – well, somewhat socially challenged. You can always develop technical and methodological skills in good people, but a person lacking social skills is much much harder to work with or change.

    Beyond all that, though, the “born teacher” idea has always intrigued me. On average, one or two people out of every ten that I took on as new teachers just went with it and soared as teachers from week one. When it was obvious I had one of these freak talents on my hands, I tried my best to stay out of their way and just let the magic flow!

    I just can’t help wondering how many of these potentially “born teachers” never find their calling, on account of ending up in crappy or over-pressurized teaching situations…

    Great post and thoughts – thanks for writing!

    ~ Jason

    1. Hi Jason,

      It seems to me we’re on the same page there. There are some great teachers who fail to live their full potential due to external factors, as you mentioned. It usually boils down to trying to get everything right – when do I correct on the spot, when do I praise, which words can I use to explain this, should I ask them to get in pairs now or later – and forget that this has been (or should have been) planned beforehand and now it’s time to respond to what happens in any classroom. This is why people skills is so important. It’s what lets us notice that A or B is not working and that we have to adapt.

      And students do seem to be more forgiving towards those teachers who are able to build a good rapport with them. Just as you said, this is becoming increasingly more important when choosing a new teacher. As you pointed out, it’s much easier to develop methodological ad technical skills in good people.

      To sum it up, there are many teachers who never find their calling, but there are also many teachers who, when given freedom to shine, become so full of themselves that they stop being good team players. I mean, unfortunately, some teachers who know they’re great seem to think that, because of that, they do not need to do what the others do. In Brazil, we can relate to that (again) in football. Whenever an exceptional football player, like Adriano (who returned from Italy) or Romário (when he was still playing), is hired, the other players have to put up with the fact that these guys can miss practice and get away with it. This is usually horrible for the workplace, as people who try their best and are good feel disrespected.

      Trying our best to keep out of the way is what we should do. Too bad some great people fail to take advantage of such freedom.

      Thank you for such a great comment! 🙂

    1. Hi Vicki! Thanks for sharing that link. I hadn’t read this post before you linked to it here.

      I think another that that makes it hard for us to find out what makes a good teacher is that we’re teachers work with people who come from different backgrounds and contexts. Just as people are unique, so are the qualities of good teachers. Perhaps a great teacher in Brazil won’t be seen as a great teacher in China, for instance.

      A good way to try to find that out could be coming up with a unified questionnaire, like the one Marisa did with her students, to be taken by students from different parts of the world. Then we could share answers and compare. But still, that would have to take into account any particularity of the learners who are answering the questionnaire, such as social class and level of education.

      Truth be told, I don’t think we’ll ever find an answer to that question, at least not an exact answer. There’s just too much involved in it, as you said.

  5. Thank you for this thought-provoking post! I chose you for my blog homework. I appreciate your voice in your pieces. I believe some people grow up knowing what they are passionate for and whatever you are passionate for you can give the gift of passing your expertise and knowledge. I think many people can teach, but to be a great educator takes more. All people can and do teach someone something and I am sure they are good at it. However, an educator steps into a classroom and has to teach groups of students. I believe every educator has to be passionate about their subject in order to be great. The skills can be obtained, but the passion gets us through the day to day.

    1. Hi Shelly,

      I’m really flattered to have been chosen by you! Thanks!

      I couldn’t agree more with what you said. If you do have a passion for what you do, you’ll always want to improve and do things better. I suppose this is true for anything you do in life. If you can find what moves you, you may even not be the very best in your area, but you’ll certainly be one the the best in what you do. There’s an advertisement by Intel which is on in Brazil right now which springs to mind. It’s a computer engineer who is talking to a friend on the phone about what he’s doing. He says he’s doing some tests with microchips or something like that. His friend immediately asks him when he’ll be off work, to which the engineer promptly replies that he’s on his holidays. If we do what we like, it’s unlikely that will be a heavy burden, even when we face difficulties.

      “The skills can be obtained, but the passion gets us through the day to day.” – Amen to that!

  6. Let’s take your comparison with what you in Brazil call footballers. I have coached that sport, called soccer here in the US, and played in college and after that at a club level. I lack the physical skill of a great player. Yet I was able to be effective at the levels at which I played by paying attention, learning, practicing and applying. I was similarly able to improve the performance of many of my players by working on their basic skills, and by teaching them to play as a team – in some cases a group that was less skilled could defeat a group of more skilled but less organized players.

    Most of the millions we need as teachers in the United States are not going to be teacher equivalents of Ronaldo. Most who are willing to listen and learn can be improved greatly in their effectiveness as teachers, and that includes those who are preternaturally gifted as teachers.

    Perhaps one should use a different framing. That is, almost all who teach can learn to be more effective. That should be a requirement of those of us in the classroom. And those who serve as administrators should approach their tasks less as disciplinarians and more as facilitators.

    I agree with Shelly that it helps to be passionate about your subject. But that is insufficient. One has to step outside of one’s passions sufficiently to find ways of connecting it with the student before you. That requires taking time to learn about your students, and giving them opportunity to take ownership of their learning.


    1. Hi Ken,

      When I read your comment about a group of less skilled players defeating a group of more skilled players I immediately thought about those who may have been born with the right skills for X, Y, or Z, but have never been pushed to improve. This is one of the things, in my view, that teachers need to learn how to do. If you had just sat there and done nothing to help the players you had to work with, your team wouldn’t have won many matches unless a natural-born talented player came along. Teachers need to show students that failure isn’t necessarily equated with getting the wrong answer – it’s doing significantly less that you could have done. This is particularly true of learners how find it extremely easy to do what is asked of them. Just the same, success shouldn’t be equated to getting the right answer – if we focus on the process rather than the results, we’ll be able to see improvement and the necessary steps to get to the ‘right’ answer.

      I agree with you when you say that willingness to learning how to be more effective should be a requirement for teachers. And why not for anyone else? If you think you’ve reached your prime and there’s nothing elset to learn, we should simply quit. In Brazil, the situation is the same. We need people to work in cooperation, but what we still see here is teachers craving for popularity and doing everything they can to be the only ones who are able to connect with kids. How do we expect to teach cooperation and sharing when there are teachers who don’t believe in such values?

      I see your point when you say that passion alone isn’t sufficient. However, it’s a major asset as one will definitely try to excel at anything one is passionate about, right? And, hopefully, teachers will learn to listen to their students and take the context they’re inserted in to make the best decisions for that particular group of learners. What works for you may not work for me, but if we are driven by the goal of empowering learners, it’ll definitely be much easier to be successful.

      Thanks for the comments! Hope you also enjoy the other posts! 🙂

  7. Heinrick,

    Food for thought. It’s a complex subject, n’est pas?

    I really think we should refrain from overgeneralizing what a “great” teacher is. This is because it isn’t just up to the teacher – there are students too. A great teacher is a zero without great students. We have to mention them. So many other factors. I find “social skills/people skills” too vague to be relevant.

    It is a complex topic and would take a long time to illuminate. Caring – I like that term’s clarity as given by the wonderful Nel Noddings.

    Karenne, the reference to 10,000 hours comes from Anders Ericsson – a Swedish psychologist. Gladwell, like so many self help / publish phenom gurus (I’ll also mention Seth the salesman quack here too) says good things but doesn’t give others the credit they are due.). The best write up on this subject for me is Philip Roth’s Scientific American article – The Expert Mind.


    1. Hi David,

      A complex subject indeed. As you said, there aren’t great teachers without great students. However, isn’t one of the skills of good teachers to be able to engage their learners? I even agree with you that this might not always be possible as what moves the human mind is still blurry and it’s pretty much impossible to please all. However, I believe a good teacher will always do his or her share. If students are not willing to cooperate, this shouldn’t diminish a teacher’s job. There are ways for you to assess whether a teacher has taken reasonable measures to reach his or her students. I like what Jeremy Harmer wrote about motivation and the role of the teacher and the learners:

      “One of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it. it is by their choice of topic, activity and linguistic content that they may be able to turn a class around. It is by their attitude to class participation, their conscientiousness, their humour and their seriousness that they may influence their students. It is by their own behaviour and enthusiasm that they may inspire.
      Teachers are not, however, ultimately responsible for their students’ motivation. They can only encourage by word and deed. Real motivation comes from within each individual.”

      If a teacher has tried all he or she could think of to “turn a class around” but students didn’t respond to it, this doesn’t mean the teacher is good (or great).

      I also see your point when you mention that people skills is a vague term. Someone may have good people skills when going out to a night club but still fail to care. As you said, caring is a good word. Good teachers care.

      I’ve downloaded the article and intend to read it even though I don’t think that was meant to me as you started the sentence as if you were talking to Karenne. I did find the topic interesting at first glance, though. 🙂

      Always a pleasure to read your comments! I can’t remember if I’ve already said that, but the comments are the most enriching part of the blog in my view as they help me think more about the topics and even change my mind. Keep them coming, please.

      1. Hi and am sorry I hadn’t noticed your post before – a small comment on what follows:

        Rick :

        … Just as people are unique, so are the qualities of good teachers. Perhaps a great teacher in Brazil won’t be seen as a great teacher in China, for instance.
        A good way to try to find that out could be coming up with a unified questionnaire, like the one Marisa did with her students, to be taken by students from different parts of the world. Then we could share answers and compare. But still, that would have to take into account any particularity of the learners who are answering the questionnaire, such as social class and level of education.
        Truth be told, I don’t think we’ll ever find an answer to that question, at least not an exact answer. There’s just too much involved in it, as you said.

        I tend to agree with you Heinrick, although some variations may be found. In fact this is a comment and query in Anne Hodgson’s mind when she read my post some time ago, so I made my research questionnaire available to her and the members of her teachers associatio to use in their own locale.

        If anyone is interested in using it, it can be downloaded as a pdf file from a Materials & Downloads page on my blog

      2. Hi Marisa,

        Thanks for making the questionnaire public. I’ll try my best to get my students to take it and then I’ll share the answers. I’ll also see if there’s anything I may have to change because of my teaching context. 🙂

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