Some people become teachers because they loved school. Some people become teachers because they hated school.
Hang around in any school for long enough and you’ll hear a few teachers say things like, “I was a terrible student back in high school.” Consider for a moment how rare such a sentiment is among other professions. Very few bakers say, “I hated bread when I was a kid.” Very few programmers say, “I hated computers when I was a kid.” Very few drummers say, “I hated music when I was a kid.” Most people show some early love for the line of work they ultimately turn into a career. However, there’s a lot of decent teachers who happily admit they were miserable students.
Why do bad students become good teachers?
First, badly behaved students generally get away with quite a lot, and they have a sense of just how often they should have been caught and punished. I recently spoke with an administrator who admitted to being a bad student back in high school and he remarked that slackers grew up with a keener sense of just how little a stern talk really does. Bad students know how often lazy, ignorant teachers let them get away with murder—and they know what sort of discipline could have saved them from squandering years of their lives. They think, “I know what kind of message would have gotten through to me,” and the cynicism they feel toward sentimental, ineffectual correction drives them to do better. Bad students turn into teachers who not only know how to catch bad students, but how to effectively punish them. They turn into adults who know just how easy and dangerous it is to confuse indulgence for grace.
Second, students who don’t like school spend a good deal of time thinking about how school could be better, whereas good students don’t. This doesn’t mean their criticisms are right and voiced from a spirit of humility—not when they’re young, at least—but it does mean that by the time they’re in their late twenties, they’ve spent a lot of time fantasizing about school. A critical spirit can sour into bitterness, but it can also mellow into something constructive.
Third, bad students have something to prove. The bad student who has a change of heart in his twenties wants to atone for the misery he inflicted on his teachers. He wants to prove his teachers wrong and, “The best revenge is a life well lived,” as George Herbert once put it.
Fourth, bad students often miss out on the best parts of a high school education. Their zeal to recover what was lost makes them fervent students as adults. The bad student who becomes a teacher is not simply regurgitating something for his students. He is performing the work of a student late in life, which means he offers his students an example to follow. He does not tell his students, “You should be like me back when I was sixteen,” but, “You should be like me now,” and he presently strives to achieve the same things he wants for his students.