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How Did You Become the Teacher

You Are?

WRITTEN BY: Curtis Kelly     DATE ADDED: 07-17-09     EDITED BY: Patrick Bickford



For me, the question, “How did you become the teacher you are?” is intriguing because I suspect the way I answer it might hint towards how all of us have become the teachers we are.

To start with, I’d like to suggest that we each have many teachers inside us, teachersthat were there before we taught our first class, and even before we reached adulthood. We tend to think that our teaching style is a product of academic training, educational philosophy, or even the way we are taught, but I have come to the conclusion none of these causes us to be a certain kind of teacher, they are just boosters that move us further along an existing trajectory. These experiences just provide us the means to refine, empowerand verbalize what already is.

Indeed, I was inspired by some great teachers, including one in elementary school; I was stretched by the humanistic educational philosophy I encountered at Vanderbilt University; and most of what I do in the classroom came from training in graduate school,JALT, or my peers. Still a fascinating theory I heard in an interview made me realize the seeds of what I have become were already in play before those experiences. The theory had nothing to do with teaching, but rather politics.

The cognitive scientist George Lakoff was interviewed on his book, Moral Politics. Lakoff posits that we have two conceptual models for right and wrong imprinted from childhood: the strict father morality and the nurturant parent (I suspect he really wants to say “mother”) morality. One values equality, accountability, and self-reliance, while the other embraces compassion, care, and protection. I’ll let you figure out which represents political conservatismand which liberalism.

Lakoff has been criticized as being simplistic, but maybe unfairly. He does not say we are one or the other but that each of us has a complex mixture of moral standards that we apply selectively. For developmental psychologists who study transference, his theory rings true. Something chimes for me as well, but not in relation to politics, in relation to what we do in the classroom.

Society has always portrayed educators as being alternate parents, and for a reason. Anyone who has observed Japanese high schools sees the strict father morality in action, regardless of teacher gender, and similarly, the nurturant mother (Okay, if Lakoff won’t say “mother”, I will) in primary schools. To me, the theory explains the extremes I encounter in teacher attitudes towards lateness, grades, group work, curricula, and just about anything else related to English teaching, including societal expectations. Here are some examples from college:


 Father Mode:

  • If a student is absent three times, then they are out.  It is a rule I use to toughen them up for the real world.
  • If they can't follow the lesson plan, they shouldn't be in college.

Mother Mode:

  • Students are usually absent because of all the things going on in their lives, so I make special accommodations for them.
  • I won't leave anyone behind, even if that means using materials below college level.


By different attitudes, I don’t just mean the attitudes and policies held by different teachers, I mean the simultaneous, yet opposite, attitudes I carry within myself as well. Class-by-class and student-by-student, I switch from one mode of morality to the other. I am a contradiction, but I make it work.

In the long run, however, I notice myself shifting away from the strict father, and more towards the nurturant mother. Training, educational philosophy, the way I was taught might be parts of the push, but only minor ones. The real shove comes from getting to know my learners more intimately than ever before.

Although I have taught English in elementary schools, high schools, graduate schools and business English within companies (changed language from just “in companies”), most of my teaching has been done in Japanese universities. For the first ten years, I taught proficient, motivated students, but for the next eighteen, I taught what I refer to as 3Ls: students with low proficiency, low confidence, and low motivation. The more I understand about them, the more I see these things happening:

  • I reframe my role from being a language teacher to being a people maker.
  • I reposition 3Ls as being the primary target of my teaching, not the ones who study.
  • I realize that understanding and accepting are more powerful tools for enabling growth than scolding and punishing.


So how did I become the teacher I am?  ... from being raised by others and then raising others myself.


Curtis Kelly (EDD) is a specialist in adult education, writing and speaking instruction, and brain-based learning. He has given over 250 presentations and written 17 books, including "Writing from Withinand the "Active Skills for Communication" series.  Mr. Kelly has granted Englipedia permission to host this article. He is currently on a panel over at ELTNEWS.COM 's Think Tank.




This page was last modified on Thursday, December 10, 2015 03:14:14 PM