Good Writers Don’t Always Make Good Writing Teachers

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frustrated student

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 press his nose to the chalkboard as he worked problems. He rarely turned around, actually. He would talk in a monotone to the board. Every now and then he’s pause and mumble, “Any questions?”

We rarely had any questions because we were too confused to know what to ask. Teacher often don’t understand that you have to have some basic grasp of a concept before you can 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 statements 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 the rest of us.

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 code. People like that learn basic grammar and style principles by osmosis. They rarely remember working to grasp 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 fight 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 partly serious. Innately gifted, motivated 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. Empathy comes in pretty handy. 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?

This is why it’s not only homeschooling moms who are bad at writing who come to us at WriteAtHome. Many of our customers are excellent, knowledgeable writers. They just realize they are better at doing it than teaching it.

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? Leave your comments below.

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Will Egan
    Will Egan06-12-2013

    I’ve experienced a similar thing with singing. I know how to keep the right pitch, and I get frustrated when others in my choir can’t.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-12-2013

      I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, Will; so I can’t exactly relate. 🙂

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