Why do so many “bad” students turn out to be great teachers?

I didn’t fail out of high school. But I sure wasn’t a “good student”. While many of my friends took Honors and AP level courses, I stayed on the “regular” track…content to hide in the back of the class, do my homework the period before, and spend the majority of my time socializing. I played sports, was in the school play the Wizard of Oz (you should have seen me as the “Cowardly Lion”), and was even Student Council President…but when it came to academics I could care less.

Interestingly, as I found myself at a crossroads in college, it was education that steered my path. I realized that I did enjoy learning, reading, and writing—but didn’t always believe the way we typically “teach” was effective. In part, my experience in school led me to hope and work for a better experience. That’s not to say that I didn’t go to a great high school (I did), or have great teachers (I did). But I was rarely allowed to learn what I wanted, and therefore spent a lot of time worrying and thinking about things other than my studies.

Fast forward eleven years and I’m in my seventh year of teaching. Now out of the classroom, I get to work with teachers every day. I still spend tons of time working with students in classes, as a coach, and as a club sponsor. I’m constantly trying to improve education in any way I can for our students.

Weirdly, a lot of great teachers have a similar story. I was listening to the awesome EduAllstars Podcast with my good friend Jimmy Casas. Jimmy told his story, and started out talking about how he struggled in school…not taking learning serious, and dropping out of college a few times before sticking it out (he also had some great parents who kept challenging him to go back to school). Chris Kesler was one of the interviewers and he shared that his path was not too far off from what Jimmy was sharing. My colleague and fellow football coach Steve Mogg, would also agree that he didn’t take high school academics to serious. But here they all are as teachers. Sharing, collaborating, and improving education each and every day. I’m inspired by all of their stories, but can’t help wonder why our paths look the same.

I know many people in our country and around the world advocate for us trying to recruit the “top” students at schools and universities to become teachers. I’d love to have them join our profession. But please don’t count out the “bad” and “struggling” students as potential teachers. I’ve found from personal experience that many times those students who struggled in school have a different perspective on what a “great” teacher looks like. We want to be champions for these students so one day they can help improve education and reach out to students who remind them of where they once were while going through school.

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  • David Fife says:

    A very interesting post AJ. I often have the same type of conversation with friends when discussing pro sports and the best coaches. It seems to me that the best coaches in pro sports aren’t the hall of famers or leaders in their sport. Instead they are the middle of the road, average (if you can say that about a pro athlete), maybe even benchwarming player! I think they make great coaches because they relate to players, they see the big picture, the interconnectedness of plays and strategies. Great players don’t need to see those connections, they just do it! I think the same applies for teachers. Great teachers are ones that relate to kids, can help them see things in a new light and provide experiences that make school fun. That math teacher who has a PhD in calculus most likely won’t be able to relate to my struggles in understanding calculus. (BTW, that’s a real life experience from my high school days!)

    Just my thoughts

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Dave, as a coach I can totally relate to what you are saying! It’s all about the relationships, and sometimes those that are “naturally gifted” whether in academics or sports, may not see it that way. However, I think my main point is that we shouldn’t focus on recruiting only “top” students to become teachers. Let’s find those people who are passionate about improving education and helping students. Those are the people I want working alongside of me!

  • Amanda Dykes says:

    I love this. I was a terrible student. In 4th grade, I actually walked into a convo between teachers where my math teacher was talking about how much she hated me, luckily the other was taking up for me. Even worse, she said she would do what ever it took to keep me off middle school cheer squad when I got older (which the year I tried out and she was coach, to everyone’s surprise, I did not make the squad!). It was a huge blow I went from making OK grades to barely passing classes for the next 3 years. No longer cared. By the time I got to 6th grade (and had that teacher again!) I was completely over school, it was probably worse year of school for me. Luckily I had a math teacher in 7th grade who actually had a P-T conference with my parents and told them to put me in a new school bc it would give me a “do-over.” They moved me the next week and it turned out to be a good decision, and at new school I had another math teacher who took me under her wing. I was pre-law in college and the school got my major mixed up and put me in Elem/Sp Ed. Immediately I thought about that 4th grade teacher and how I could have the opportunity to do the opposite of what that teacher did to me. I get to teach the lower level students and I see myself in so many of them. They love to hear stories of what I “loser” I was. But I can see the potential in them and know that the C in middle school science really isn’t that big of a deal as long as they know someone thinks they can actually become something in life. They also know I have lived it and turned out OK.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      I love that you can relate to having that “one” teacher that can make a difference. What if we had more of those teachers? And how can we change teacher training to bring more teachers like that into our profession.

  • […] read AJ Juliani’s post “Why do so many bad students turn out to be great teachers?” and definitely could relate. I was just a s0-so student in high school. Traditional […]

  • Krista says:

    Great post- I’d like to add in “first generation students” and “second-career teachers” to this list. I think we forget the value that people who approach education from a different perspective can bring. Educators who disliked school will definitely bring a different philosophy to teaching & learning- as will those that grew up in families without higher education degrees or those that have experienced private sector employment. I’m always shocked by how many educators have parents & grandparents who were educators as well- its definitely a family business! Outside perspectives -including cynical ones- can serve students well.

    • JK says:

      Great: I am too late to read this post. Most often some think that teachers who come from broken families, having mother in jail and mother who divorce three times can only relate themselves to such students. These bad and negative past should fade and must create a positive feeling for a person to be a teacher. There are educators from educator families who always devote their life for the improvement of others are the greatest teachers. At present our schools need such teachers and because some negative culture had entered into schools, most schools are loosing such great teachers. High expectation is not seen in schools and our students are struggling in the hands of such a bad influenced teachers who always point to such a bad past as an experience. This culture must die. Teacher training must bring in a positive mind set with all teachers what every may be the students background is.

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  • […] Juliani has a very observant post that you should read here. He addresses the question “Why do so many ‘bad’ students turn out to be great […]

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  • Kate says:

    I am not a teacher yet but I hope to be in the next four years. I never liked school. I always had a hard time sitting still and paying attention. All through school I just seemed to get worse and worse. I eventually dropped out of school my senior year knowing I wasn’t going to graduate and just hated school. It was boring, I normally read most of my books before classes began for the year and read a lot of other things. Each year I went to school I already knew what the teacher was teaching so I would sit in the back of the class and read other things. I could pass tests no problem but I didn’t do any of the class work or homework which usually failed me. Except in English, I always maintained at least a B. I would write out my papers while my teacher taught since I finished the books weeks before others.

    I was a student who should have been challenged all my school life. When I finished a book before others I should have been made to write more papers on other books. I should have been given other work in my history classes that still pertained to what we learning but maybe on a deeper level. Yes this might have created more work for them but wouldn’t it have been better to save a student.

    That’s why I want to be a teacher. To teach on a normal level for my other students and catch the advanced ones before they slip through the cracks. I want to encourage all my students to learn as much as possible about what I am teaching them. If they are truly interested I will teach them more individually about the subject. I know there are many many students out there like I was, and are probably labeled dumb when they are just bored. I will find them!

  • […] Parents send their children to school to let the school raise them too often.  The result is a liberal idiot that will probably become a college professor.  Worse yet a politician.  The teacher can only […]

  • Frank Bennin says:

    AJ, I agree with you 100%.
    I was a nobody as far as educatioin is concerned from my ealy life but today, hahahahahah. WONDERFUL!
    I wish to enncourage everybody not to give up hope. I have my own school now with 11 teachers under me. You may check my email pictures. Become our friend.

  • Scott Welsh says:

    In order to be a great teacher, you need to know how the students who get it wrong think, you can’t just know how to get it right…

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