A couple of years ago, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert explored the negative side of our unrealistically high expectations for artists and, more generally, for those who rely on their creativity to make a living. In ancient Rome, Gilbert recounts, creativity was associated with a sort of divine spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unfathomable reasons. The Romans referred to this intangible spirit as a genius. An individual was not a genius, but rather had a genius - a magical entity who was believed to live in the walls of an artist's studio and who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with his/her work. The lesson Gilbert draws is one of humility (i.e., successes are not entirely ours – don’t be such a narcissist) and emancipatory relief (i.e., failures are not completely our fault either – can’t hurt to try).
What does all this have to do with education and teachers? It seems to me that our expectations for both teachers and artists are sometimes unrealistic and unproductive, if not detrimental. Great teachers are often portrayed as superheroes, unencumbered by anything that might distract them from their teaching crusade – "refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls." As a recent article in The Atlantic explained, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about how they have overcome the challenges in their lives and uses these answers to rate their perseverance.
Yet the meaning of "Great Teacher" rarely gets analyzed. Instead, our definition of greatness – or even competence – remains a convenient black box, leading some to suggest that the question of what makes a teacher great is less important than separating the wheat from the chaff. In turn, this reveals a simplistic and, in my view, negative assumption that greatness, unlike Gilbert’s genius, is a stable, static, innate, and independent attribute. You either have it or you don’t.