What If I’m Not a Good Teacher?

question

Today, I’m tackling another question posed by one of my Methods students:

What if I am not a good teacher? What if I fail? Yes, I know, these are technically two questions, but they are related so they count as one. (My blog. My rules.) These are serious questions I have about my future as an educator. I do not want to fail my students and I do want to be a good teacher, but what if I just suck. What then?

What then? You’ll try again and get better.

Teaching is such a complex and complicated act. It is composed of philosophies, beliefs, techniques, strategies, and methods that may be shared among teachers, but even when I use the same techniques and methods as another teacher, even when we share the same pedagogical vision, my teaching does not look like hers.  I teach who I am. I teach who my students are. Good teaching is creative and responsive. Nancie Atwell uses a wonderful word to describe teaching in her new book, Systems to Transform Your Classroom and School:  generative. I  love everything that’s suggested by that word.

I understand that my students want to be good teachers from the very beginning. I did too. I knew that I was going to be teaching 12th grade for many years, but my students only had one shot at it (well, most of them. A few got to do it twice). I wanted to get it right. I wanted so badly to get it right.

And I didn’t. In ways both small and spectacularly huge, I got it wrong all the time. Whenever I see the students I taught in my first year, I feel this desperate need to apologize to them for being so bad. 

But I also have to acknowledge that my sense of my own failure in that first year is strongly colored by how I grew and developed as I continued teaching. Marie Hassett is absolutely right: “we learn to teach gradually.” I was better in my second year of teaching. I was significantly better by my third year.

This isn’t what any new teacher wants to hear, but I just don’t think it’s possible to be very good at teaching when you first start out. What do we ever do well the first time we do it? Especially when we’re talking about something as complex as teaching?

You won’t be a good teacher when you start out. No one is. Even really amazing teachers do not spring fully formed from their education programs. Really amazing teachers are made one failure at a time.  If you make time to reflect, ask questions, listen, learn, grow, revise your practices, you will get better.

And if you’re really lucky, as I was, you will have wonderful students who take you in hand and coach you–sometimes quite directly and perhaps more frankly than you’d wish–in how best to teach them.

One change in my teaching practice just in the last year or so has been to think a lot less about myself as a teacher and a lot more about myself as a learner, and I think this is a good practice for beginning teachers. Even really dismal days can be salvaged if you take a learning stance. If your goal every day is to learn something that will help you be a better teacher, every day can be an #eduwin. Even the really crappy ones.

Think about the different tasks you perform in a day as a teacher:

  • Lesson plan design
  • Connecting learning tasks to larger purposes and visions
  • Asking questions
  • Listening
  • Kid-watching
  • Organizing materials
  • Organizing people
  • Managing time
  • Managing people
  • Connecting people to content
  • Connecting people to people
  • Designing engaging activities
  • Facilitating discussion
  • Performing
  • Telling stories
  • Establishing and reinforcing routines
  • Showing empathy

You won’t be good at all of this from the very beginning, and you may never be very good at some of it. (For example, keeping my teaching materials organized is still a battle for me, fifteen years into my career–as anyone who has seen my desk knows.) But there is at least one thing on this list that you are going to be a natural at. Celebrate what you do well. And work on getting better at the other things.

What does it mean to be a good teacher?

What does it mean to be a good enough teacher?

Because I think the first year is all about being good enough until you can learn how to be good.

Focus on what really matters.

If your students read and write and talk about their reading and writing, you’re a good enough teacher.

If you say a personal word to each of your students, you’re a good enough teacher.

If you choose being kind over being right, you’re a good enough teacher.

If you care about your students and create a space where they feel safe and loved, you’re a good enough teacher.

Teach what you believe. First years are often more difficult than they need to be because there is such a disconnect between what we believe we should be doing and what we find ourselves doing. 

Write. Reflect. Find mentors.

Find something to love about your work every day.

Remember that it’s good to fail. Failing means you’re doing something right. You’re taking risks. You’re learning.

11 thoughts on “What If I’m Not a Good Teacher?

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  3. You’re wrong when you say that no one starts out as a good teacher. Watch Bill Gates’s Ted Talk about great teachers. The most successful predictor of a teacher’s future success is her initial success. The statement that no one can be successful from the start is inaccurate, dangerous, and a potential red flag indicator to the roots of your own struggles as an educator. Great teachers never ever ever tell anyone he is not capable of success and never tell anyone he can not achieve success, at any stage. Please read the book, Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire, for some inspiration, encouragement, and rekindling for veteran teachers. -Jessica L. Campbell

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  6. Thank you Elisabeth for your words. They really consoled me. I’m a new teacher, and I teach IELTS. My students LOVE me, and I helped many of them improve their English. However, I found myself constantly suffer from this uncertainty of being a good teacher. I always think I could become better and better. I feel embarrassed for my imperfection. I guess, partially it’s because I’m not a native English speaker, even though I’m band 9 (the highest) in IELTS test. The feeling of guilt is haunting me every now and then. I really need to force myself to see things from a different angle. I knew the theory, but I needed to see someone who’s also a teacher admit that same feeling first, then I can be more persuaded. My husband told me, “You teach who you are, and who you are makes your students love you so much, you are a good teacher.”

    • You are welcome. I am glad you found the words in this post consoling. Teaching is incredibly complicated and challenging work, and we can ALWAYS find ways to do it better–which makes it hard to believe we are ever good enough. I know that 20+ years into teaching, I am still learning and growing and figuring out ways to do it better, and now, that’s one of the things I like most about teaching. But it hasn’t always been that way: I used to find that part of it discouraging. Positive relationships with students is the most important work we can do, so you have the best possible foundation to keep learning from!

  7. What a great post for beginning teachers to be able to read. (and for us veteran teachers who still wish we could be perfect at everything every day, too) I love your focus on having a growth mindset and your suggestion of focusing on “good enough” in the beginning–and on your list of what makes a “good enough” teacher. ….so many important ideas in here. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thanks for commenting! I hadn’t read this post in many years and was surprised and gratified to see it find a reader yesterday. First years are hard! I often wonder if there is something about teaching that draws perfectionists to it–so many of my preservice teachers are, like me, perfectionists, and it’s hard to do anything as unpredictable and complex as teaching and apply perfectionist tendencies to it!

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