The Washington Post

Are teachers born and raised (not trained)?

Who should teach? Robert Bligh, former general counsel  of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, looks at the issue in the context of the previous post about historian David McCullough’s comments about who should teach and who shouldn’t. (He said no professional teacher should have an education degree.) Bligh’s research interest involves the efficacy of the school reform efforts promoted by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its original adoption in 1965. He served as assistant professor at Doane College and was editor  and publisher of the Nebraska School Law Reporter.

By Robert Bligh

I am intrigued by the comments of David McCullough about the training of K-12 teachers. I have several reactions:

 (1) I suspect that a successful teacher training program produces good teacher candidates because of the personal characteristics of the prospective teachers it admits and graduates. Indeed, I have begun to suspect that most of what goes into making a successful K-12 teacher is in place before the teacher-to-be becomes a kindergarten student. I would say that a good teacher is born (with the right genes) and raised (in the right household), rather than “trained” or “educated.”

 (2) Pure academic intelligence (whatever that might be) is probably the least important characteristic in an effective K-12 teacher. Certainly there are plenty of extremely bright teachers, but teacher contributions to K-12 students are not influenced much by pure teacher academic ability.

  (3) Teacher personality traits (humane motivations, patience, sensitivity, tolerance for many circumstances that most people cannot tolerate) mean much more than mere academic ability. K-12 teaching is more of a nurturing role than an intellectual role. Teachers at every level who “fail” with bad students are the same teachers who “succeed” with good students.

(4) I wish that all teacher training programs would simply acknowledge that the most important thing they do to produce effective teachers is deciding (a) who they let into the program and (b) who they let graduate. If well-chosen teacher candidates are able to demonstrate that they are smart enough to graduate from college, their success in the K-12 classroom will be directly proportional to the quality of students they are given to teach.

(5) The common judgment of the impact of teachers is wrong. The idea that formal education – preschool or K-12 – can be an effective substitute for a healthy nurturing family is nonsense. Children spend less than 9 percent of childhood in school and more than 91 percent of childhood someplace else. Every child lives 50,000 hours between conception and the first day of kindergarten and spends less than 14,000 hours in a classroom between the start of kindergarten and the end of Grade 12.

(6) Students who are well-raised – especially during the prekindergarten period – tend strongly to succeed in school irrespective of the “quality” of their teachers. Students who are not well-raised — especially during the prekindergarten period — tend strongly to fail in school irrespective of the “quality” of their teachers. This outcome occurs in every state, in every school district and in every classroom.

 (7) Expecting education to repair the developmental damage inflicted upon children by preschool life in inadequate household has been a uniform and universal foolish failure since it began to become politically popular in 1965. Children who fail academically do not need better teachers and better schools. They need better childhoods.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Making family dinnertime happen
Deaf banjo player teaches thousands
New limbs for Pakistani soldiers
Play Videos
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Learn to make this twice-baked cookie
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
Play Videos
Syrian refugee: 'I’m committed to the power of music'
The art of tortilla-making
Michael Bolton's cinematic serenade to Detroit
Play Videos
Circus nuns: These sisters are no act
5 ways to raise girls to be leaders
Cool off with sno-balls, a New Orleans treat
Next Story
Valerie Strauss · November 12, 2012

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.