The Myth of the Perfect Teacher

Note: This post was originally published on June 26, 2012. On October 14th, I did a presentation at JALT 2012 in Hamamatsu with Chuck Sandy and Ozge Karaoglu, during which participants created this prezi. So, I’m adding the prezi to the original post and opening it once again to comments. What are the stereotypes of a perfect teacher? What are real teachers like? And, how can we help each other become the best teachers we can be? (Barb)

“I could be a perfect teacher, if only I didn’t have to deal with students, parents or administrators!”

(overheard at a professional development workshop)

I rarely hear teachers say that they want to be perfect, but I do, quite often, hear them say that some flaw of theirs prevents them from being good teachers. Whether that “flaw” is the lack of training, or lack of language ability, lack of confidence, or something else, the statement implies that there is some sort of ideal for teachers to aspire to.

Becoming the best teacher I can be is a great goal. But, my best is a relative thing. It was different when I was a young, single teacher than it was when I had a young child at home. It was different based on the knowledge and resources I had available at any particular time.

Even though the perfect teacher is a myth, I’ll bet we can describe him or her. I’ll start the list, with myth vs reality check, and I hope you’ll add more in comments.

Myth #1  The Perfect Teacher has an MA or DELTA.

Reality Check: If you’re looking for a job teaching English, a degree or advanced certificate is definitely as asset. But, it’s no guarantee of teaching ability. My MA may have gotten me a job, but most of what I know about teaching I learned after I left the classroom. With so much online, and such thriving social networks for educators, we can all find something to learn. However, what I feel I need to learn in order to become a better teacher may not be the same thing you feel like you need to learn. That’s okay. We can complement each other.

Myth #2  The Perfect Teacher is a native speaker of English.

Reality Check: Some of the finest teachers I know learned English as a second or third language. Since the myth also comes with a hiring bias, these teachers usually teach in their home countries, which often means they understand their students’ language learning needs than I do. All teachers have ideas and experiences that, if shared, will make the rest of us better teachers, too. Sometimes limited English ability holds teachers back from sharing, but most of the time it’s simply a lack of confidence and a fear of ridicule (since Perfect Teachers are native speakers). It can be scary to take that first step into sharing ideas about teaching in English, but simply participating will increase both language ability and confidence. And we’ll all benefit from having more diverse voices in our discussions.

Myth #3  The Perfect Teacher is motivated and confident.

 Reality Check: Some of my greatest improvement as a teacher has come from periods of self-doubt and lack of motivation. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s hard to push yourself to try new things when everything is going well. I don’t think I really began to grow as a teacher until I realized that I didn’t really know what I was doing. Motivation is an odd animal as well, and there are some wonderful posts on the iTDi blog on the subject (that I’ll be summarizing on Wednesday). Particularly in these tough economic times, when teachers find themselves having to teach more hours just to pay for rent and living essentials, it’s hard to stay motivated. I think that’s not just okay, it’s natural. Online and offline groups help us keep up morale, but there are times for all of us when teaching is just a job. Luckily, good training enables us to a provide good value for our students until our natural motivation returns.

More Myths?

You get the idea. What are some other myths that describe the Perfect Teacher? Hopefully, by providing some reality checks we can do a better job of supporting each other in becoming the best teachers we can be, even if we define that best differently.


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26 Responses

  1. Karen says:

    Very insightful! I truely love your comments that teachers are always motivated and committed when your reality is right on! We have some really down days sometimes. I’d add another myth that I keep running into — that teachers are non-entrepreneurial. So many people will say “oh, you are a teacher” in a voice that says they forgot to say “oh, you are JUST a teacher”, like spend our days in the classroom waiting for our 3 months off. In reality teachers make interesting and unique entrepreneurial ideas come to life. Every day is a dog and pony show to keep kids motivated. Great blog!

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Karen! You are so right about that myth. Since I never wanted to be anything except ‘just a teacher’, I sound particularly uninspiring in those conversations. But I still can’t imagine anything I’d rather do than be in the dog and pony show 🙂

  2. Excellent point(s), Barb!

    Of the myths you describe, #1 and #3 really stand out for me.

    What I call “the paper trail” (for qualifications) has led to a lot of recognition and pay differentiation based almost purely on pieces of paper which, in my experience, have rarely correlated to reliable guarantees of teacher quality. I’ve met and worked with some extremely ‘qualified’ people who were stunningly poor in the classroom; likewise, I’ve met and worked with some absolutely brilliant teachers who were quite simply amazing in their dedication and creativity, but were looked down on (or felt looked down on) based on lack of expensive papers next to their names.

    And your point about motivation and confidence is so very true. The reliable teacher in the real world faces and works through these issues on a regular basis, and this ought to be a badge of quality (one that differentiates a quality teacher from the outright pessimists glorifying themselves in mediocrity and/or the almost inanely confident individuals who figure they are doing brilliantly even when all the evidence indicated otherwise!).

    Wonderful post, Barb – thanks for posting it.


    – Jason

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Jason! I’m glad those myths resonated with you.

      Myths like these can be harmful, I think. They can make teachers feel like failures if they don’t live up to some idealized image (even when they’re quite good teachers). If you aren’t always motivated, it’s your fault. If your students don’t succeed, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough to reach them.

      It’s a cliche, I know, but I do believe that unless our profession works for all teachers, it doesn’t really work for any of us 🙂

  3. Whoops – forgot to add another myth…

    How about the idea that the best teachers cater to their students’ every whim and sensitivity, correct every single mistake, or teach in a way that removes any possibility of ‘failure’?

    Teaching learners to need us isn’t a sign of quality, in my opinion!


    • Barbara says:

      Oh, that’s a good one! It totally takes away any sort of responsibility that students share in the learning process, doesn’t it? Not very healthy, at the very least!

  4. Lesley Ito says:

    Thank you, Barbara! This needed to be said. Teaching is sort of an odd profession, in that it sometimes get elevated to the level of “a calling.” Teaching is hard enough without having that kind of pressure put upon you. We should never forget that we are human. We get frustrated, we have bad days, we have lesson plans that fall flat, and sometimes we make mistakes. As long as you do the best you can, consider your students’ feelings, and try to teach them something new, you are a good teacher, in my opinion!

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Lesley! I agree with you.

      Doing the best we can is all we can really do, isn’t it? And ultimately, we’re the only ones capable of making that evaluation. I’ve had days that felt inspired, and I truly felt as if I had a calling. I’ve also had days where my kid woke up at 5 am with a fever and vomiting, and I felt lucky just to show up to class on time with a lesson plan of some sort 🙂

  5. Hi Barbara, I am very motivated to share my story because what you said “Sometimes limited English ability holds teachers back from sharing, but most of the time it’s simply a lack of confidence and a fear of ridicule”. It is so true that I often feel intimidated to share my experiences in class because of “a fear of ridicule”. So here I can find a myth: A perfect teacher is a perfect human being almost like super-human with substantial amount of knowledge in English language,philosophy, psychology, physics, science, art, music and almost all the relevant area of overall education. On top of that, spotless personality.
    Actually, as a student (currently post-graduate), I love and loved typical human sides -vulnerable, messy, sloppy- of teachers. My favorite teachers are all sincere and passionate with their profession but never be “perfect” as a human. They are adorably awkward from time to time and unafraid to show their students their weakness. Because of that, I love them as fellow humans and admire them as my educators.
    I was a student from hell, back in high school days, unmotivated, uninterested, unfriendly and underachieved except the English Grammar class. I hated Grammar itself but loved the teacher. She was disorganized and spoke in a funniest way. I had an attitude yet was curious about the uniqueness of the teacher. One day, she said to me, “Oh, your English pronunciation is much better than mine. Come here to the front and read those sentences for me, would you?Please?” I never imagined that I would be asked a favor from a teacher and felt amused. But of course, as a “cool” teenager, I couldn’t accept such a request. But with repeated beg in the comical tone from her, I reluctantly sat next to the teacher and read example sentences in the textbooks. That was the first time I felt sensation going through my spine. The sensation of joy of contributing something for peers in class and being accepted as a member of the class by the teacher. The teacher often asked me to do the task and I reluctantly accepted the request but secretly felt ecstatic. I have met some more inspiring teachers but she is definitely one of them.
    Thank you, Barbara, for sharing the myths and reminds me of the teacher who actually rocked my world.

    • Barbara says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, Chiyuki! I have a hard time imagining you as a student from hell, but am in awe of your English teacher for finding a way to motivate you!

      I love the myth you’ve added. We probably ought to include the superhuman power of being up to date on all technological developments! We really do set unrealistic standards for ourselves, don’t we?

      Hopefully the other imperfect teachers out there will take encouragement from your story–sincere and passionate trumps perfect 🙂

  6. Sandy says:

    Teachers have all the answers. Now, there’s a myth. Too many teachers put egos ahead of opportunity for real learning to take place. Moving away from the lecture-study-test ritual to a more inclusive exploration of information and content can reveal a lot more complexity of the topic and provide a chance for an enriched dialogue in a classroom. I love the Socratic method of teaching. Answer most questions with another question. Helps to put the thinking where it belongs. The one who does the thinking is the one who does the learning. Students shut down when they know that a teacher is up there on a pedestal pontificating about how much s/he knows. I am retired now but the thing I will miss the most are those “Ah-ha” moments when students connect all the dots, make meaning from what they are reading or discussion and eagerly jump at the chance to take ownership of their own learning. Talk about motivation to learn! Hard to keep them from diving into a new topic when presented in such a humane way. Yes, we do not have all the answers and should, as educators, keep learning ourselves. There is nothing more annoying than a teacher who is bombastic and egocentric about their work. Humility has its place in the classroom. We are all learners. The more human we allow ourselves to be as educators, the more likely students will meet us halfway to learn. No, we do not have all the answers and it’s okay to admit that to students. Teaching is a lot of “showtime”, too. Even if you DO know the answer, act as if maybe you don’t. Step aside so kids can move forward in their learning. Goes against instinct but that’s where it gets fun. Careful, though. In this intensive, high-stakes mentality of educational reform, we teachers can become so overwhelmed to be perfect, that angst, hostility and oppression seeps into our teaching. I’ve seen teachers who once were patient and considerate of their students, become teachers from hell due to the irrational expectations placed upon them for perfection. Then the cycle begins. We must appear perfect and by doing so we must know all the answers. Terrible trap. Quit listening to those who are furthest away from the students and trust your intuitions about how to teach with humility, humaneness and humor. It works.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for your comments, Sandy. The idea that the Perfect Teacher has all the answers is a strong myth. I don’t know many teachers who do think they know all the answers, but do feel like they’re supposed to. That’s a lot of pressure, and can make teachers afraid of saying that they’re not sure. You’re right–asking questions and getting students to think is a great approach, and I love those Ah-ha moments!

      Teaching with humility, humaneness and humor is great advice for us all. Thanks for sharing it!

    • Alfonso says:

      Good teachers as you, Sandy, should never retire!

  7. “Teaching with humility, humaneness and humor.” is exactly what young learners need. Unfortunately, my daughter who has just entered a private junior high school got absolutely opposite style of teaching. They teach with authority, artificiality and acrimony. I call it fear-based approach which may work to get learner’s do what they are told to do for a while. But as all of us know, it kills the learner’s autonomy to investigate the mysteries of the world. It has already destroyed my daughter’s motivation to explore the bigger world.
    This is the biggest concern of mine at the moment…

    But I am not sure how I can possibly share the words of wisdom with people under social pressure…

  8. mona says:

    They’re really inspiring. I’m an Iranian English teacher who got CELTA 2 years ago and works in her home country. I don’t wanna brag but I call myself one of those who’s aware of what she’s doing in the class. This “being a perfect teacher” is one thing I’m making efforts to reach. The second myth resonates with me so very much. I always wonder how in earth some supervisors don’t bother accept you for even a short time to be sure you’re doing well or not. I once handed in my resume to an American institute, the abrupt reply of the supervisor right to my face was ” sorry you are not a native”!

  9. Adam says:

    Excellent post – I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. From my own personal experience, I found teachers who didn’t openly strive for perfection were much more engaging and approachable, which helped me much more as a student.

  10. Dr.S.Babusundar says:

    The discussion is very interesting and provokes me to review and analyze the teaching profession.

    I think, there should not be “perfect teachers” rather only perfecting teachers.

    A teacher should be able to motivate the students to learn and teach them ‘ how to learn ‘. Because, we as teachers should be able to contribute to the development of great scientists, engineers, researchers and philosophers, from among the students in front of you.

    A teacher should basically trust what he teaches and enjoy the subject as he teaches. The taught realize that the teacher is deriving pleasure in dealing with the subject. This can be achieved only with deep knowledge in the subject, the teacher handles. The teacher should also have a sound general knowledge, so as to make the students feel that the teacher knows a lot of things and there are many many things to be learned from him.

    I think, it will be right to mention about one key tip I got from my students when they were giving me a farewell from their institution to another, early in career, about 30 years back. One student who spoke on me, told that I am a very knowledgeable teacher, in the sense that I can be approached with any doubts from any area in Mathematics for a solution. But I was not able to make the subject interesting to the students and make the class room an enjoyable place. Truly, my career as teacher from thereon is significantly different. I have a lot of gratitude to that student.

    I hope I made my point clear. Let the discussion attract more and more ideas.
    Let us try to be motivators and facilitators first and teach the students how to learn.

    Please respond..

  11. Ivan says:

    Hi Barb,

    Congratulations on this GREAT article! It was very nice to know some of the finest teachers you know learned English as a second or third language 🙂

    I love teaching English and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else in my life. But as a Brazilian teacher of English (I’m really proud of that) I completely understand this fear of ridicule some non-native English teachers have. I also had this fear a few years ago, but reflecting on everything I had done to get to where I was, and I finally realized I had nothing to worry about.


  12. Rose Bard says:

    This presentation/reflection came just in time for me Barbara.

    I’m really glad I have taken the time to get connected with other teachers around the globe and giving more time to read what other teachers go through and learn that I am not alone.

    For many years I believed in most of those myths myself and it was frustrating. Even though I’ve always tried my best, my best according to what was required by others was never good enough. Anyway, now I know those are myths and I can start doing just what matters the most… being the best I can be and connecting with people that matters leaving the things that don’t behind.

    Tks again!

  13. Debbie says:

    Dear Barb,
    I watched the recording of your presentation at BrazTesol, I think, about The Myth of the Perfect Teacher, and I kept thinking about it, somehow I find your words simple to understand, clear explanation of our simple fears, attitudes, aspirations, challenges as teachers. Your way touches me.
    Then I read a post by Cecilia Lemos about her mantra “I am not JUST a teacher”, and I started campaigning against that JUST. The perfect …. does not exist in any aspect of life, don’t you think?. We do the best we can, as teachers, as parents, as friends, as members of communities.
    I see and read about lots of teachers feeling burnt out, me included many times. So, right now I remember one of the first webinars I took with Lisa Dabbs and Joan Young, that was right at the beginning of my experience of learning online, and Joan said “Yes, there’s a clock”. (Now, I understand it better)
    So, I am a teacher, a woman passionate about teaching and many other things, and Yes there is clock!
    I grew up with the idea of aiming at “0 Failure” .-) never achieved this goal … yet!
    But even as imperfect as I am, I am happy.
    Thanks Barb

  14. Irene says:

    Dear Barb,

    that’s a really good article. I loved that it’s simple but straight to the point.
    I fall in the second category (non native speaker) and I always feel really scared and worried to demonstrate that I speak English perfectly as a native speaker, which only makes do more mistakes. I work in a school where 99% of the teachers are native speakers, and that really makes me feel like an outsider (it’s not because of their behaviour towards or anything like that) I think it’s just my own expectations.

    And I also just started connecting online with the TESOL world and I am really enjoying it and finding lots of inspiration! Thinking of opening a blog myself!



  15. Hey Barb,

    Great article. I’m doing a DELTA at the moment and definitely feel like this year I’m on a massive learning curve, but trying to make everything apply to help my students learn. I agree with you about what you said about everything you’ve learnt has happened in the classroom, some things you just can’t study for!

    I’ve put a link to this article on my blog, hope you don’t mind!



  16. Alex Morris says:

    A nice article, thank you! I don’t think there is such a thing as a “perfect” teacher. Looking back on some of mine from my days in education I can say I found the ones who were fun, passionate about their subject, and entertaining were the ones I remember most. Being the most knowledgeable or “best” in a school didn’t really lead to a good teaching experience at times.

    I can see why a lack of confidence can be an issue as kids these days can badly alter even the most rational of teachers. Discipline is important but if a child fails you can’t go blaming that simply on the teacher. I think Jamie Oliver’s recent crusade for better school meals has been important; children are eating horrendous things that ruin concentration and lower energy levels. Regardless of this, having a teacher with some fundamental flaws can be a useful experience for pupils. No one’s perfect.

  17. Bob Jones says:

    Hi Barbara,
    First a belated thank you for your co-presentation on the Myth of the Perfect Teacher at the JALT Conference in Hamamatsu. I wonder if you’d mind me sharing a little anecdote with you.
    At one point you and Chuck Sandy invited us to write down some of our thoughts about how teachers can maintain their self-esteem and I wrote “Even the great Kalmö had his problem students” or something to that effect. Let me explain the background. For two years from 1979-1981, I taught English in a small town in Sweden. One school where I taught part-time was the local high school and one of the teachers was a man called Leif Kalmö (who sadly passed away a few years ago). Leif was by all accounts as near to perfect a teacher as could be. He taught French and German and was also an excellent English speaker, though he didn’t teach English. He also had a great sense of fun and a conversation with him could be very entertaining. People who’d left the school years earlier often said that Leif was the best teacher they ever had. You heard comments like “My daughter was praised for her pronunciation when she went to France. That’s because Kalmö was her teacher,” “With Leif Kalmö, no two classes were ever the same. He did something different every day.” Some teachers had children who were students at the school. These teachers often tried to fix it so that their own children ended up in Leif’s class. A very highly respected teacher, as I’m sure you can see.
    There was one evening I remember, though, when I’d had an evening class and Leif was working late. On the way out of the building, our paths coincided and we walked down the road together. We chatted about a couple of things and I said to Leif, “I hear a lot of good things about your teaching.” He sighed and said, “Well, maybe, but two years ago, I had one class that were absolutely evil. They didn’t like anything I did. I could never do anything to please them. I seriously thought of giving up for a while and applying for study leave.” A little bit further down the road we parted company as he headed back towards his home and I went off to mine. As I walked home I pondered on how someone as “perfect” as Leif Kalmö could also have his unhappy classroom moments and couldn’t please everyone all of the time.
    That little conversation has had a great effect on me. Now, more than 30 years later, if things aren’t going well and I have trouble getting on with a class, I sometimes remind myself, “Even the great Kalmö had his problem students.”

  18. Fabiana Soeiro says:

    Dear Barbara,
    After reading your myth number 3, I tried to relate the fact of improving through hard times to reflecting over our practices and I would like to suggest teachers to take part in Professional Learning Communities, that makes us learn through sharing and get closer to being a perfect teacher. Not a super hero, but a highy effective teacher. What do you think?

  1. October 21, 2012

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