Are the best teachers smart?

Nan Bahr, August 20, 2019

A comment from a popular online blog: “Yes, they do have to be smart and most of my colleagues are smart. By which I mean: They are smart enough.” (Quora, 2017)

Given that a good teacher can’t be dumb, how smart do they need to be to be good, and are smarts enough?

The literature is full of reports on the competencies needed for teaching; a quick search in Google Scholar identified 633 articles published so far in 2019 alone. They refer to skills for teaching, to teaching as a trade, to teacher training and so forth (Okkinga, et al., 2018; Sayer & Jones, 2018). Prominent writers talk of the art and science of teaching (Marzano, 2017). The unspoken idea being that good teaching is borne of a kit bag full of teacher-ly techniques, and if you’re smart enough to learn them, then anyone can be a good or even great teacher.

The public are focused on finding the smartest possible candidates for teaching. There have been all manner of mechanisms introduced to identify only the smartest teacher candidates for recruitment into teacher education. Applicants are tested for high level literacy and numeracy in a high stakes test (Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education [LANTITE] Australian Council for Education, 2019), require completion of a specified array of ‘hard core’ senior schooling subjects to a set minimum standard, and require an overall schooling achievement beyond any in the past. And they are asked to write a couple of essays for the “Non Academic Assessment for Teacher Education” [NAATE);—institutions/teacher-entry)  conducted by the University Assessment Centre. While motivation and vocation are important, it’s hard to imagine how a short essay could reasonably assess this, and the smart ones would be able to anticipate acceptable responses, wouldn’t they?

The argument is that if we get the smart ones into teacher education, then our national future is secure. There are some boutique programs that simply choose people with the highest academic achievement in any degree and snap them up for classroom teaching with a short orientation program (e.g. Teach for Australia; ). They are forgiven the requirement for full teacher preparation education, because they are clearly very smart. And so, there has emerged an almost complete disregard to the personal qualities and attributes required for powerful impact on young learners through this obsession with smartness. Simply being smart is acceptable as a fine proxy for a full teacher education program.

Of course teaching is not for the intellectually weak. Teachers need to be able to think through concepts in complex ways to design learning experiences for their charges that are logical, authentic and engaging. They need to be able to evaluate learning by finding clever ways to identify and challenge conceptual misconceptions. But most of all they need to read people. They need to be so attuned to understanding others and adept at developing working relationships that they can read the learner and can intuit, anticipate, and set the conditions for learning (Bahr & Mellor, 2016).  These are capabilities beyond smart, and skilled. These attributes are not even captured by measures of vocation and motivation. These, teacher-ly attributes, are honed through teacher education alongside the basic competencies for teaching (i.e. planning, content knowledge, pedagogical techniques).

So how smart does a teacher need to be? Smart enough to sense that they are being lied to by a cunning student. Smart enough to know not to ask John if he has his equipment, the important thing is that he’s turned up at school today. Smart enough to know that near enough isn’t good enough for Mary, but represents a huge achievement and improvement requiring loud celebration for the same achievement for Ellen. A different kind of smart. A caring kind of smart.

So how do you know if your child’s teacher is any good? Ask your child what they are learning. Ask them if they have fun. Ask them to show you how to do something their teacher has taught them. You really don’t need to ask for their teacher’s CV, or their high school grades. So, yes, the best teachers are smart, but a type of smart that is not easy to identify with an academic test of knowledge, or a demonstration of a technical skill.

Australian Council for Education (2019). Literacy and numeracy test for initial teacher education.

Bahr, N., & Mellor, S. (2016). Building quality in teaching and teacher education. ACER press.

Marzano, R. J. (2017). The new art and science of teaching. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Okkinga, M., van Steensel, R., van Gelderen, A. J., & Sleegers, P. J. (2018). Effects of reciprocal teaching on reading comprehension of low‐achieving adolescents. The importance of specific teacher skills. Journal of research in reading, 41(1), 20-41.

Quora, (January 11, 2017). Do people have to be smart to become teachers?

Sayer, J., & Jones, N. (2018). Teacher training and special educational needs. Routledge.

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