flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Dan Carlin in his investigation of Genghis Khan quotes Lord Acton who once wrote that “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”  This implies that great people often only become supposedly ‘great’ at the expense of others. That is, whether it be Napoleon or Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, they all brought about great chaos and killing that was paramount to achieve their success over time.

This idea of the consequences associated with success got me thinking about teachers, teaching and learning. There are those out there who wish to reduce impact solely down to the work of the individual. This has many flow on effects, but the most problematic one is the birth of the ‘great teacher’.

I have lost count of the times I have been asked to reflect on my past and recall a great teacher. For me, these teachers were those that often pushed against the grain, who stood out in the crowd, maybe broke the rules, seemingly going above and beyond. Maybe these are worthy attributes to have, but at what cost? The question that often goes unasked is what context allows for the creation of such teachers and is it always positive? Who suffers and what is lost in the process? Are great teachers in fact bad teachers?

For so many, the word of the moment is collaboration. Whether it be Alma Harris’ Disciplined Collaboration, Cathy Davidson’s Collaboration by Difference or David Weinberger’s Smart Rooms, they all seem to celebrate the collective power of the group over the individual. The problem though is that it can be hard to break the traditional cycle of leadership and learning for a more distributed model. A focus on the individual has the tendency to produce an environment of competition, which sacrifices collaboration, in the hunt for greatness.

To re-imagine this situation, I want you to stop and think for a moment about a teacher who for whatever reason was not the greatest? Rather than dwelling on those individual attributes which made them stand out for all the wrong reasons, think about what teams they were a part of. Was there anyone else teaching that subject? Were they visibly linked with others or left alienated? How were they supported? Maybe these are more pertinent questions and help highlight the real problem.

In the end, I am left wondering, can greatness ever be good? What would schools look like if we had great teams which focus on building capacity, with no one teacher standing out above any other? Would this focus on community allow for more of a focus on learning? To be honest, I am really not sure. More than ever, I would love to know your thoughts on this matter, for in the end, it takes a village.

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Are Great Teachers Bad Teachers? by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

16 thoughts on “Are Great Teachers Bad Teachers?

  1. Hello Aaron,
    When I read this post I wasn’t considering the nature of greatness as much the changing role of teacher in education. In our modern, web connected world, teachers with authentic expertise are just a click away. Greatness then, is in the eye of the learner. It is through investigation, and analysis that we identify quality, or greatness. Maybe it’s time to create s new word since “greatness” tends to get thrown around easily these days.
    I’m rambling – need to think on this more.

    • I agree about your point about words. I think that words often have a limit as to what they can provide and greatness does not really capture what it is supposed to. I really liked your point about learners and think that is where the discussion needs to start.
      As always, thank you for pushing my thinking. Together we are all always better I think.

  2. I think the concept of a ‘great’ teacher is subjective. Teaching is not one size fits all. We are continually reminded to cater for the diversiy of our students. Maybe the bland overused word ‘ effective’ teacher is actually more representative of a ‘great’ teacher. Empathy, connection, acceptance and focus on the individual in a supported community of teachers and learners. A teacher need not to ‘be great’ to recognise and support and inspire ‘greatness’ in others.

  3. Another great episode Adam and Rick, thank you for the response to the last episode. Interesting idea Rick with the meet-and-greet program.
    I really like Adam’s point about the half-forward flank. I wonder if the ‘great teacher’ can be a hindrance to overall school success? Is it possible that great schools actually produce the greatest teachers:

    The problem with picking the right teacher is that there is no definitive means of finding such a person. This right teacher implies that we are fixed in everything that we do and think. In addition to this, the ‘right’ teacher for today, may not be the ‘right’ teacher for tomorrow. Another alternative is to provide the conditions for the right teacher to develop and grow.

    In regards to leading a PLC and leadership in general, I think another way to think about that question is whether everyone has an optimal environment and team to foster as a leader? I agree about your point about people having certain characteristics being more beneficial, but if you know someone else has your back then it can make a world of difference.
    I remember being told at University about the importance of finding the right school that fits with your beliefs, I think the same can go for leadership too.

    Also on:

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