A few posts ago, I detailed in what ways my lack of interest in having children might have impacted my performance as a teacher (“Being A Teacher Without Children”). I believe I have a built-in distance that influences my interpersonal skills. I’m naturally aloof and standoffish. Some coldness in me diminishes my desire to raise children. The source of this coldness might have been what helped me run an organized, efficient classroom, but it also prevented me from having the kind of empathy that some highly invested teachers cultivate. In that post, I claimed that teachers with children of their own (or who want children of their own) might be effective in ways I couldn’t be. I continue to believe this, but I feel compelled to explore further this notion of effectiveness and its roots.
To clarify, I wouldn’t claim that these teachers are highly effective because they have children. I think they have an innate sense of compassion that leads to an interest in childrearing and allows them to make particular kinds of connections. They can be effective in certain instances because of this sense. In another recent post (“When Noble Intentions…”), I mentioned how over-extending such compassion can be a detriment, at least to the larger school community. Empathy and caring are valuable qualities for teachers, but I’ve known empathetic and caring teachers who have been incompetent liabilities to their schools.
I’ve had several ideas throughout the years about what combination of skills makes for the best teacher. For a long stretch, I thought organization outshined everything. Without organization, that compassionate teacher’s bleeding heart ends up smeared all over the mess of a classroom he or she runs. The demands of running a contemporary classroom quickly overwhelm a teacher without organizational skills. Some teachers with warm personalities but haphazard organizational skills probably make up the droves leaving the field each year.
Overall management skills have been another frontrunner. I’ve considered this to be a combination of an assertive personality and the ability to multitask. Losing control of a class can make the workday intolerable. If a teacher can’t relate with students and consistently support positive behavior while fielding interruptions, even classes filled with relatively well-behaved students can get out of hand. Commanding classroom facilitators often possess the innate organizational prowess mentioned above, but not always.
Perhaps in contrast with my thoughts on teachers with children, I’ve thought that not having children might be an asset. I’ve known teachers who have thrown themselves into their work because they’ve been single and without children. The lack of distractions helped them focus on their work (which might have been a distraction from the lack of distractions). This might account for at least some part of why some teachers with these situations do so well in schools.
I’ve had another more recent idea that has supplanted some of these other notions. Maybe what makes the best teacher is intelligence. The very best educators I’ve known have been exceedingly bright. This high aptitude has enabled them to anticipate and plan. It has allowed them to deftly manage while effectively instructing. It has helped them respond insightfully and adjust accordingly. Interestingly, some of the smartest and best have also been single and childless. I’m not sure what that suggests. My sample size is probably too small to make assumptions.
The empathy piece continues to resurface, because I think that drives some teachers who might lack some of these other components. A smart teacher might not have the compassion necessary to cope with the emotional challenges of the job. Of course, this person might be able to maintain a distance that could foster perseverance in another way. I get stuck on whether feeling too much or too little would be better. I suppose different teachers have different strong suits. This brings me to my final point.
My career has taught me that a potent teacher is forged less from any of these factors than from happenstance. What makes a person excel in this profession is a fit between his or her personality and a particular school, a specific teaching assignment, or even a specific group of students. For example, I fit exceedingly well in one highly nuanced teaching situation. I would not have fit nearly as well in others. Much of the prowess others saw in me stemmed from the chemistry I mustered in that one specific position. Like with any relationship, the same spark might not have caught in other jobs.
Affect and ability need to be matched to the right scenario, allowing a teacher to find a comfortable groove. A teacher might love biology and want more than anything to teach it, but that teacher might not be able to relate to a group of disenfranchised students and might falter with them. A teacher might be well organized and assertive, but might not have the compassion and patience necessary to work with needy six year-olds. The key is finding that match. Not enough teachers or jobs exist for this match to always work. This could influence why so many leave and why so many who stay complain.
I believe the formula for an effective educator has less to do with what is inside that individual and more to do with how that individual gets matched with a teaching assignment. Some teachers will be able to make the most of a variety of situations and can grow to fit many different kinds of teaching jobs. Others will do well in one particular arrangement, but won’t be able to transfer their aptitude. The crucial point for any teacher will be finding the right niche.