Teacher Strengths: Individual and Universal

Subbing in three different schools at once offers some unique insight into the teaching world.  I think I notice it more now because the three schools I’m in now vary so widely in size and demographic.  Between my observations of teachers in each setting and my conversations with my personal teacher friends, I’ve thought a lot about an individual teacher’s ability to do their job well.  What factors separate a good teacher from an average one?  What’s the balance between training, setting, and natural talent?  After letting these thoughts percolate for a few weeks (yes, I’m behind on my blog posting, I know), I’ve reached two conclusions.

1.  I’ve poured a lot of my focus into targeting and highlighting teenagers’ strengths as they enter young adulthood, but more and more I’m seeing that schools need to make better use of their own teachers’ strengths.  In some cases, schools need to START paying attention to their teachers’ strengths, because right now they aren’t doing that at all, and it’s hurting their students.  Not all high school English teachers are created the same, and I’m sure that truth carries through all departments and grade levels.  We may carry the same certification and sat through the same classes, but that doesn’t mean we thrive in the same areas.  I’ve watched far too many schools assign course schedules at random, giving  the Honors courses to a teacher who prefers the struggling demographics, while another teacher who enjoys pushing the rigor on high-achieving kids instead has to figure out how to deal with the special-ed inclusion classes.  I’ve seen teachers who prefer teaching literature given writing lab courses while their grammar-loving counterparts take on the literature-heavy classes.  Couldn’t we just trade their schedules and make everyone happier?  I realize that logistics will always make it so that it can’t always work out perfectly, but from what I’ve seen so far, many schools don’t make even an effort to pay attention to individual teacher strengths.

Administrators, what gives??  Do you realize that you’re handicapping your own staff by assigning classes this way?  Don’t you see that when you give a teacher a course load that matches their skill set, they’ll be a better teacher for you?  They’ll be less stressed.  They’ll be interested and engaged, instead of frustrated and worn down.  They’ll teach from a place of natural instinct, rather than trying (often unsuccessfully) to take on an uncomfortable teaching style.  I realize that you’re busy and may not have the time to get to know each of your teachers on that level of individuality, but isn’t that what your department heads are for?  Talk to them!  Use them!  Take their advice and strategically plan your teachers’ schedules to give your entire school its best chance for success.

2.  College doesn’t teach us how to teach.  I sit in classrooms observing other teachers, and while we’re each unique in our strengths and styles, there are some universal skills we all share – and college courses didn’t cover those skills.  Take, for example, the teacher voice.  There’s a certain tone a teacher takes on when they’re in “teacher mode”.  A teacher can be standing in the front of the room at the beginning of a period speaking to handful of individual students, but when they want to begin class and engage the whole room, they take on the teacher voice.  The shift is often subtle, but students know how to pick up on it nonetheless.  At the very least, the teacher projects more.  They insert authority into their words, even while still laughing and joking.  They haven’t memorized a script or prepared word-for-word what they’ll say, but they speak with purpose and a plan as they introduce the lesson.  College doesn’t teach us how to do that.  We didn’t practice projection or deliberate vocal intonation, but we all developed our own version of a teacher voice, anyway.

College told us to pick our battles, but never really gave us practice or showed us how (until student teaching, of course).  We weren’t taught how to watch every corner of the room at once and decide what to address and what to ignore.  We weren’t taught how to build the thick skin necessary to deal with the kids who hate us, or how to not take it personally when even the kids who like us ignore our instructions, text and talk while we try to teach them, and in general treat us like our dedicated efforts aren’t worth their notice and attention.

It’s impressive that there are so many good teachers in the world when so much of what we have to learn is based on trial-and-error.  Don’t get me wrong – college is good.  It teaches many helpful things, like student development, lesson planning, and curriculum scope and sequence.  But so much of the day-to-day grind is lost in those idealized, hypothetical lesson plans we made for our professors.

College teaches the latest trends.  Newly graduated teachers are now the experts of Common Core, since they had to study it in their college classes.  But trends change.  The catch phrases I learned in college are already going out of style, and in five to ten years, the standards and buzzwords will shift again.  Good teachers continue to thrive despite all the jargon change because we didn’t learn to be good teachers in college, sitting on the students’ side of the desk.  We learned to be good teachers when we’re thrown into the deep end, standing in front of the room and figuring out how best to complete the tasks in front of us.

I realize this might be an odd post to write during winter break, when schools are off for that blessed week and a half to two weeks.  It’s a time of recouping and recovering for many teachers, a chance to catch their breath in the middle of all planning, grading, and documenting.

*sigh* The documenting and evaluating… That’s a whole post right there – the side of the teaching world students don’t see that’s increasingly becoming a bigger and bigger headache for all teachers, good, average, and bad alike.  I’ll keep my comments to this:  Policy makers, keep on this track, and you’re going to lose your good teachers.  They’re going to burn out and leave because you can’t trust them to do the job you’ve asked them to do.

I’ll stop there.  I feel another tangential rant coming on, so I’ll save that topic for another post.  For now, let’s end on a positive.  Appreciate your good teachers.  As school starts up again in January, take a moment to see them as people, individuals with strengths and weaknesses, but who genuinely care about what they do.

16 thoughts on “Teacher Strengths: Individual and Universal

  1. Excellent, as always. You have captured the current state of the teaching profession. Nearly every teacher battles “the system” to do the best job they can, despite all the hurdles those who make policy try to throw up in front of us. But, you are right, it if keeps up we are going to lose some of the most talented and best qualified teachers in the field. Something needs to change…that can be achieved through voting for “teachers and student” friendly candidates instead of people who are out to protect special interests. VOTE people, and do it with some education behind it.


    • Thank you! I know too many good teachers that are already talking about leaving public school teaching – hoping to get into private schools or simply shifting careers – just because the system is beating them down so much. It’s tragic, really. Unfortunately, I haven’t really seen any politicians that I would trust to make educational policies that come from a place of understanding. When someone who has never been in my shoes tries to tell me how to do my job (or how to prove I’m doing my job, in this case), it’s really frustrating. And so much of the school atmosphere comes from the administrators, too, and they aren’t voted in. Administrators who don’t support their teachers is just as damaging as bad policy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. College gives you a lot of theory but usually falls way short on the practical (especially practical job related skills). Sounds like you are adapting quite well though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess that’s why they made us student teach – to try to get a little of that practical skill set before we graduated! 🙂 I have a lot of experience at adapting… Different schools, age groups, demographics, and subject matter, all with different expectations to go with each one. But what I’ve learned is that I know what works well for me individually, no matter where I am. I think that’s why this cookie-cutter approach to managing teachers instead of paying attention to individual abilities bugs me so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a student right now, and I’ve never seriously considered how teachers are assigned to classes. I always assumed they more or less were able to choose. There were jokes of some bad teachers being “demoted,” but that was about it. Your blog is really interesting, especially from a student’s perspective. 🙂


    • Thank you! And no, most teachers do not get to choose what they teach. If they’re very, very lucky, they’ll have an administrator who does pay attention to what each teacher likes and does well, but in most of my experience, that doesn’t happen. We answer to authority and have other people dictating decisions for us, just like everyone else. 🙂

      I’m glad you find my inside look interesting. I do sometimes wish students could get a better sense of what their teachers go through – just to make us look a little more human! 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    Absolutely fascinating read. Much thanks.
    Favorite quote: “College doesn’t teach us how to teach. I sit in classrooms observing other teachers, and while we’re each unique in our strengths and styles, there are some universal skills we all share – and college courses didn’t cover those skill”.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this post on teaching. I agree. Good teachers burn out when administrators don’t pay attention to many details… It’s even worse when they micromanage everything and don’t do any teaching themselves to keep them “current” in Professional Development.


  6. This is REALLY interesting to me, because I’m a college student studying to be, among several other things, a high school teacher. To be honest, so far I’ve found my teacher prep courses to be fairly useless and full of common sense stuff…which has led me to internally debate how much of teaching is natural instinct, and how much is actually making use of all our training and common core material. I’d like to think teachers are born, not made.


    • Yes, a lot of being a good teacher comes from instinct and natural talent – but I don’t want to go as far as to say that college isn’t worth it. I found the classes that were most helpful were a few of the educational psychology courses, and then the upper-level classes that dealt with actual content, such as Curriculum and Methods in Teaching English, Teaching Writing, and all those literature, grammar, and writing classes that went with my English major. That core knowledge can’t come from instinct. You have to be confident in your content to teach it well. And any clinical or practicum that actually gets you into a classroom (even if they’re younger kids) can give you a better idea of the practical side of teaching, so value those opportunities, too.

      But yes, unfortunately, too much of the educational classes (especially early on) is common sense or basic intro to theories that don’t mean much in the day-to-day act of teaching. My friends and I used to joke that they made us sit through four years of education classes just to make sure we were that much older than the kids we would eventually teach. 🙂 Once you’re out in the teaching world, you’ll learn pretty quickly what’s worth holding on to and cultivating, and what you can mentally discard.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As a student in high school, I definitely agree. Some amazing teachers aren’t given credit for the hard work they’ve put in that actually let the students see the value in learning. Despite teachers’ individual strengths, they must follow by colleges and Common Core material. I also have never given thought into how they assigned teachers to each class. Very interesting read!


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