Stop Telling Teachers They're So "Talented"

You've stopped in to visit your child's classroom. Despite their young ages, diverse needs, and boundless energy the teacher has all of the children in her classroom engaged and learning.  It's kind of amazing to watch and you're impressed.

On the way out you tell the teacher, "You're so talented. You have a real gift."

Don't say that anymore. Here's why.

I've taught kindergarten for a quarter of a century. I have a Master's Degree in Reading: Curriculum and Instruction. I've attended (and taught) more Professional Development classes than I can count. I'm not "talented". I'm not "gifted". I'm educated and experienced, just like millions of teachers that you see doing great jobs day-after-day in classrooms across the nation.

You wouldn't tell a successful lawyer, doctor, or engineer that their success was due to their "talents," would you? Of course not. We immediately recognize that successes in these fields is due to hard work, education, and experience. Teaching is no different.

In the United States we tend to view teaching as something that requires no skill as long as you have the "talent" for it. A disposable job that anyone can enter and exit at will as long as they have the "gift" for it. Contrast this to other countries, like Finland, where only one out of ten applicants are accepted into teacher education programs and graduates receive a Masters of Education. Finish teachers receive respect and autonomy as professionals who have developed highly desired skills. While here in the United States teachers are so disrespected as professionals that having an education degree isn't even a requirement to be the head of the Federal Department of Education. And more and more states are filling jobs without requiring education degrees.

In many ways good teachers are like good authors or good musicians. When you read a great novel or listen to a beautiful symphony you may be tempted to say that the creator is "talented", but it's not true. In the 1990s a team of psychologists in Germany studied the practice habits of violin students. They found that those who became successful violinists put in approximately 10,000 hours of practice and that "natural talent" had nothing to do with whether students became proficient or not. Similarly, prolific and successful science fiction writer Brandon Sanderson has said that good writing is not due to innate "talent" but to the development of writing skills. Good teachers are the same. They have honed their craft with years of experience and education that largely go unnoticed, unrecognized, and unrewarded.

So stop telling great teachers that they are "talented" or "a natural". Instead recognize the time it has taken to develop those skills. Only then will we encourage more people to become similarly "gifted".