The Handicap of Being a Naturally Good Writer
The worst teacher I ever had was an absolute genius. It was in college calculus. I needed a math credit and had taken some calculus in high school, so I figured it would be a snap. Plus, Mr. Chang was a renowned math whiz.
But Mr. Chang had some quirks. He had terrible eyesight despite his thick-lensed glasses and had to nearly press his nose to the chalkboard as he worked problems. He rarely turned around, actually. He would talk in a monotone to the board and barely wait after pausing with an obligatory, “Any questions?” Funny thing about that question. What teachers often don’t understand is that you have to have some basic grasp of the subject before you even know enough to ask a question — at least one more intelligent than, “Can you explain that again? I don’t get it.”
When that question came — which was often — Mr. Chang looked perplexed and repeated several of his most recent utterances in roughly the same words. Only quicker. Then he moved on. He never appeared angry. Just confused — as if he had no idea why we hadn’t been able to follow his explanation the first time.
Somehow I ended up passing calculus that year, but it was despite Mr. Chang, not because of him. He was unquestionably brilliant at his subject, but he was incapable of communicating it to us normal kids.
There is a certain amount of expertise every teacher needs in his or her subject, but it’s not uncommon for people who are exceptionally good at something to be lousy at teaching it. Talented writers, we have found, do not always make effective writing coaches.
In fact, we often hear something like the following from parents we talk to about WriteAtHome:
“I’ve always been a good writer. I love to write, actually. But trying to teach little Harold here has been a nightmare. Somehow he just doesn’t get it.”
The problem is that some people are natural born writers. Fluency with words is built into their genetic makeup. People like that learn basic grammar and style principles by osmosis. They rarely remember working to grasp basic writing concepts. And while that’s good for them, it leaves them at a disadvantage when they are asked to teach someone else. Someone normal.
When I speak at homeschool conventions, I often ask for the natural writers to raise their hands. I ask if anyone enjoys the act of writing — if the idea of a quiet afternoon with just an empty journal and a fine pen is an alluring prospect. I always get a few hands held high. Then I tell them what they need to hear:
“You people are freaks. You are weirdos. You are not normal. Your kids — the ones who write only because you make them, who wrestle for every sentence and long just to be finished — they are the normal ones. For the good of your sanity and your children’s education, please understand that.”
They chuckle, but I’m serious. Innately gifted writers are the exception, and they have to understand that being naturally talented is often a disadvantage for teachers.
The art of teaching (and coaching) is to make a craft like writing rationally comprehensible to students. There is a bit of empathy required. Good teachers are constantly asking, “How can I make this concept clear to my student?” And going back to when it first became clear to them is a good place to start. But if it’s always been clear, where do you begin?
I sure hope that Mr. Chang moved on from teaching math to a job where he actually used math. If so, I’m sure he’s a happier and less bewildered man.
I’d love your responses here. Anyone relate to the handicap of being a natural writer? Do you find it hard to teach what comes easy to you?
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