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5 Things Great Teachers Are Not (and 5 Things They Are)

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Around this time of year, great teachers around the country are meeting their new students for the first time. They are diving into the start of the school year with hope, tenacity, and skill. However, the work they do is often misrepresented in popular media, newspaper articles, and political discourse. So, as we're gearing up for the 2013-2014 school year, join me in debunking the worst of the teacher myths. Here are five things that great teachers are not, and five things they are.

1. Great teachers are not superheroes; they are everyday heroes.
Teachers should not be expected to work miracles in miserable conditions. They are everyday heroes who want to be working sustainably and joyfully every day. Robert Hawke, a principal-in-residence at Achievement First, puts it eloquently when he says, "Teachers are also mothers, and husbands, and people who need to go grocery shopping and would occasionally like to spend some time volunteering at church or -- gasp -- reading. Yes, we should expect that they do their jobs the best they can and yes, this job requires much more than eight hours per day, but they won't be able to continue doing these things beyond a couple of years if we also expect them to put their outside-of-their-job lives completely on hold."

2. Great teachers are not saviors; they are inspirers.
Children are strong, magnificent human beings who are not waiting to be rescued, they are bursting to grow. Children also come from families and communities with strengths, culture, and knowledge that great teachers affirm, learn from, and celebrate. Great teachers do not swoop into children's lives thinking that they have all the answers. Instead, great teachers inspire children to draw on their own strengths, interests, and communities to accomplish great things.

3. Great teachers are not magicians; they are practitioners.
The work great teachers accomplish -- whether it is teaching a first grader how to read, conducting a middle school orchestra in a masterful rendition of a challenging piece, or helping a high school senior land his first internship -- is the very opposite of illusion. What great teachers do to accomplish that work should be on display, deconstructed, and shared to improve everyone's practice. Books like The Skillful Teacher and online networks like Classroom 2.0 are a more accurate depiction of the skills great teachers work to hone over years than movies like Stand and Deliver, which, while enjoyable, show very little in the way of good instruction.

4. Great teachers are not interchangeable; they are individuals. Teachers have strengths and weaknesses, preferences and interests. A teacher who thrives in one particular situation might not thrive in another. Teachers are most successful and happy when they work in the subject, school, context, and communities that best fit them. Questions we need to ask when we talk about teachers include:
  • What kinds of schools do teachers work in? What are the schools' systems for planning, instruction, and discipline?
  • What kind of professional relationships are supported by their schools? How are teachers expected to interact with administrators and with one another?
  • What are the cultural and economic backgrounds of their students and their students' families?
  • What are the teacher's responsibilities? Review their actual task lists and calendars to see just how different specific schedules and those specific tasks are across schools, subjects, grades, and districts.

5. Great teachers are not lone rangers, they are team builders.
Behind every great teacher, is a great mentor, and behind every great teacher who loves teaching, is a great team. Great teachers are a product of other great teachers who have built them up. They are hard to find in schools with dysfunctional adult cultures because when the adult culture is bad, teachers leave. And, while good teachers do amazing things in their own classrooms, great teachers extend their influence by partnering with the people most important to their students lives, whether they are siblings, parents, grandparents, coaches, or other teachers. Great teachers do not work alone.

Bottom line, it's dangerous and destructive to talk about great teachers like they are superheroes, saviors, magicians, interchangeable, or lone rangers. Narratives like these prevent us from dealing adequately with real issues, such as the need to make teaching more sustainable, financially and psychologically, and the challenge of evaluating teachers amidst a great variety of different contexts. Practice recognizing and counteracting these narratives when you come across them, the teacher in your life will thank you for it.

This post was originally posted on Medium.