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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Excellent, Linda. Well said. I hope I didn’t give the impression in the post that good writers cannot make good teachers. You certainly disprove that idea. I was only hoping to dispel the notion that someone who writes well is necessarily a good candidate for writing teacher.
I also hoped to put at ease those homeschooling parents who love to write, but are less pedagogically gifted than you. I want them to know that they are not alone.
I so appreciate your thoughtful response.
I am a natural writer and have been writing all my life. However, I am also a natural teacher, which is not too surprising considering that both my parents were also teachers. So both writing and teaching come naturally to me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a lot to learn. Over the past thirteen years I’ve taught various types of writing classes to various groups and ages of homeschooled students (including my own). My efforts to help individual students master the material has led me to improve as a teacher and become more effective. I figure every time I teach a class I learn at least as much as my students. If a student is struggling with a concept that is easy for me, I just keep brainstorming and trying different tactics until I hit on one that works. Then I’ve got another tool in my toolbox. That’s one thing I love about teaching just a few students at a time. I can take the time to customize my approach if that’s what it takes to make sure that all my students master the material. I think every teacher needs to keep learning–I know it sounds hokey but if I stopped learning how to teach better, I think I would lose interest! But I agree that those who struggled with writing themselves are better able to empathize with students who also struggle with writing. I almost never admit to my students that I was one of those irritating people who could write a term paper in an evening and get an A on it. Instead I show them how they can write a term paper in three days and get an A on it!
Thanks for the comment, Anita! I would give you an A for this post for sure. 🙂
We have begun getting writing coach applications from former WriteAtHome students. I find that particularly encouraging. I look forward to hearing from your daughter in the future.
I can definitely relate! While I wouldn’t say that I’m one to be thrilled about the prospect of writing; it is something that I can do reasonably well. I don’t have the imagination to be a good fiction writer (in school, I would joke that my stories would likely put the teacher to sleep), but through high school and college I could write reasonably good essays that were clear, concise and grammatically correct. I doubt I scored less than a B on any of those papers.
But no, it is not something I can teach. I could correct my child’s paper myself, or tell them what to write, but they wouldn’t learn anything from that. You folks there at Write At Home provide just the right balance of praise and constructive criticism to encourage and develop good writing skills.
I’ve graduated one daughter through your program (and she is considering education that would hopefully lead her to the opportunity to be a writing coach for Write at Home). I have a second in the program now, and a third that will be in within the next year or two.
I’m so thankful that you provide such a terrific service.