“Natural” Teachers

“What explains America’s love affair with the untrained, the unschooled, the uninitiated?” – Peg Cagle

Peg Cagle’s ignite talk above masterfully takes down the trope of the “natural teacher”, arguing that painting some teachers as natural is unrealistic and demeans the teaching profession. I want to expand on her argument and unpack what people often seem to mean when they describe a teacher as a natural.

Walking into a classroom, an average member of the public might describe a new teacher as natural based on surface characteristics that actually aren’t essential to helping students learn. Speaking confidently, explaining ideas clearly, having some content knowledge, and getting students to like you are all things that many humans get good at outside of teaching contexts, and at first glance someone with those skills might appear to be a natural teacher. That’s not to say those skills aren’t important, but if a teacher stops growing there, they are falling short of the potential of impactful teaching.

The heart of teaching is much more subtle, much harder to learn, and much more counterintuitive. Where else but classrooms do people ask questions not to learn the answers, but to provoke thinking in others? Where else do people try to figure out how someone thinks about an idea that they don’t yet understand? Where else do people design an experience with scaffolds for someone who is struggling? Where else do people have to manage a room by both maintaining a thread of instruction and paying attention to the motivation, engagement, and understanding twenty-five individuals? Where else do people design experiences where, multiple times in an hour, they need to react on the fly to something a participant said or understood and possibly change course? These are skills that new teachers are extraordinarily unlikely to find “natural”, and they are only a small subset of the skills that make great teachers great.

Teaching is not natural. And, for many of the uninitiated, seeing someone as a natural means focusing on surface-level features of teaching, cutting away the complexities and challenges that lie under the surface and simplifying the profession down to the lowest common denominator that those outside of it can understand.


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