Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Greatness Trap: Why Good Is Good

You might have noticed that I am fixated on the expression “good teachers.”  All good teachers aspire to be great.  If you are consistently good, you can be sure that eventually one of your students will announce to you that you are a “great teacher.”  Accept the compliment graciously because your hard work deserves at least some of it, because these monumental moments are the real payday in a teacher's life, and because, according to the French aphorism,  “To refuse a compliment is to demand a second.”  At the same time, good teachers need to remain wary of how "greatness" can be a trap.

Do I sound like I'm talking to myself?  Yes, sort of, but I hope I was able to spot the signs of my own hubris and overcome it expeditiously.  Once upon a time, the Maclean's Guide to Canadian Universities used to publish a section called "Popular Profs" in which my name was listed along with three others from my university.  (I would eventually realize that popularity is the kiss of death to a university career. 1) After a former student called me to alert me that I had been named in Macleans, I did wander around for a few days (or was it weeks?) thinking "Wow, I must be a great prof!"  Slowly it began to dawn on me:  "Okay, you're great!  So now what?"  

Thought number two: "If I'm already a great teacher, I shouldn't have to work so hard."

Thought number three wasn't really a thought; it was a behaviour.  A behaviour that caused me to look up a word in the dictionary, a word I already knew but I now had a more profound understanding of:  "mannered."   It means to be artificial, stilted, unnatural.  I was becoming mannered because I was trying to imitate myself, trying to repeat those small excentricities, warm tones of voice, empathetic glances, magnanimous gestures and concerned postures that I thought had made me popular.  As I recognized what I was doing, I also realized that I was spending way too much time thinking about myself, instead of what I was supposed to be thinking about, my students and what I was teaching.  It was time to simply acknowledge that I was lucky, to appreciate and make the best of my good luck, and get back to doing what good teachers do.

Hubris (the pride that comes before a fall) is only half the story of the "greatness" trap.   

Greatness, like all stereotypes, labels, myths and identities, becomes the standard against which you are measured and measure yourself.  If your preoccupation with greatness causes you to work extra hard, to take on extra responsibilities and go beyond what is expected of you and find extra satisfaction in your work, then it can be a good thing.  However, if it becomes a distraction and source of stress, or traps you into something that doesn't support good teaching, then it isn't.  You already know what I'm talking about here.  How many times have you heard, in a sarcastic tone,  something like:  "Well, if you're a feminist then shouldn't you  . . . . "  Or, "'If you are an environmentalist  then you should . . . ."  Or, "If you are such a great teacher then you should . . . ."  

You should stand up proudly for your beliefs, but recognize that any label can be turned into a trap, a means of manipulation.

Here’s a case in point I came across in National Affairs

Wow, “common sense” and “decades of empirical research”! Talk about seductive! So, what’s the “great teacher” test?  In fact, that’s the point of the article, the necessity of testing, evaluating and grading teachers.  And who is going to decide who and what the great teachers are?  Some administrator or pedagog who hasn’t been near a classroom in the last ten years no doubt.  

To avoid the traps, stay focussed on what you know good teachers do.

1. This is, of course, anecdotal evidence, but when it comes to "popularity as career suicide" what other kind of evidence is there.   Three members of my department had, over the years, been identified as "Popular Profs" in The Macleans' Guide.  After being identified as "Popular," one was forced into early retirement.  The second was denied a full-time position, and I was blocked from promotion.


  1. "And who is going to decide who and what the great teachers are? Some administrator or pedagog who hasn’t been near a classroom in the last ten years no doubt."

    This right here is crucial. The notion that teachers need to be evaluated more in order to get better is ludicrous. Students don't learn literature or chemistry by being evaluated. They learn by sitting in class and participating to a pedagogical activity that forces them to listen, share, experiment, etc.

    Similarly, teachers don't need to be more extensively graded as is being suggested by the government in the last 48 hours of negotiation meetings. We are already evaluated and graded every single time we step in the classroom. What we need is access to a training budget that covers the cost of the conference we want to attend or participate to. We need a budget that will cover a significant part of expenses if that conference is outside the town we live in. If you want teachers to better themselves, they need to opportunity sit down, listen, talk and experiment; they don't need a student survey every other year on how much they enjoyed the 45 hours they spent with you.


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