Are Great Teachers Born or Made?

classroom with students

Greatness is easily recognized. Whether it be in sports, music, or writing, there is often a short list of contenders for the greatest of all time. How greatness is achieved, on the other hand, can be difficult to explain.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, Gladwell considers the factors that lead to high levels of achievement in a broad range of vocations. Although he acknowledges the fact that heredity and environment contribute to success, practice emerges as a common theme among the greats. Gladwell attributes high levels of success, in part, to the 10,000-Hour Rule, which states that the key to achieving greatness is deliberate practice for at least 10,000 hours.1 For example, consider Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback. With numerous NFL records and 6 Super Bowl championships, he’s arguably one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time. In a 2017 interview, Brady explained that he prepares for 16 hours per day during the week before a game.2 Practice is key to his success.


Figure 1: Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book

Practice is clearly essential for achieving excellence in sports, but is it also required for success as a teacher? Before answering this question, it is necessary to recognize that greatness in teaching is more difficult to define than greatness in endeavors like sports or business. Championship wins and net worth provide simple measures of success in sports and business, however, these evaluations cannot be applied to teaching ability. One way of defining greatness in teaching is to simply describe it. For instance, stakeholders have developed lists of the desired characteristics of an instructor. Although these types of lists vary, there is significant overlap among them.3,4,5,6,7 For example, great teachers tend to be described as:

  1. Enthusiastic
  2. Knowledgeable
  3. Skilled in a variety of instructional methods
  4. Able to communicate clearly and effectively
  5. Organized
  6. Respectful
  7. Empathetic

Some of these qualities are skills that can be learned, while others are more likely naturally occurring, and researchers have attempted to categorize them in this way. For example, Childs (2009) summarized the characteristics of good teachers into three categories: (1) attitude towards students, (2) personal qualities, and (3) teaching skills and practices.5 Alternatively, Arnon and Reichel (2007) used two categories: (1) personality and (2) professional knowledge.8 Some of these represent qualities that are learned (teaching skills and professional knowledge), while others are natural (personality and attitude).


So, are great teachers born or made?

The consensus is that people are not born with skills and professional knowledge that are necessary for teaching. Some people may have a more naturally agreeable personality, however, teaching skills and knowledge are learned over time.9 Similar to Gladwell’s outliers, it takes hard work and experience for this type of knowledge to develop. In the same way that a person who has never touched a piano would not be able to sit down and play a piece from Beethoven, a person who has never taught a subject will not be as effective as someone who has taught that subject for years. To become an expert pianist, it takes years of dedicated practice, and it is the same way with teaching.

Figure 2: Knowledge for teaching [Modified from Grossman (1990)]4

Many researchers have attempted to characterize the knowledge of an expert teacher, and it's complex, to say the least. A teacher has many forms of knowledge, but one arguably stands as chief among them. It’s called Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK), and it’s the missing link that transforms a person from someone with a lot of subject matter knowledge into a master educator.10,11 PCK is a vital component in becoming a great teacher and in my next post, we will consider how we can work to develop this unique form of knowledge.



  1. Gladwell, M. (2008). . Hachette UK.
  2. McKenna, H. (2017). Behind Tom Brady’s preparation for Super Bowl LI. Retrieved from
  3. Feldman, K. A. (1989). Instructional effectiveness of college teachers as judged by teachers themselves, current and former students, colleagues, administrators, and external (neutral) observers. Research in Higher Education, 30(2), 137-194.
  4. Grossman, P. L. (1990). The making of a teacher: Teacher knowledge and teacher education. Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.
  5. Herrington, D. G., & Nakhleh, M. B. (2003). What defines effective chemistry laboratory instruction? Teaching assistant and student perspectives. Journal of Chemical Education, 80(10), 1197.
  6. Childs, P. E. (2009). Improving chemical education: turning research into effective practice. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 10(3), 189-203.
  7. Hassard, J., & Dias, M. (2013). The art of teaching science: Inquiry and innovation in middle school and high school. Routledge.
  8. Harris, A. (1998). Effective teaching: A review of the literature. School Leadership & Management, 18(2), 169-183.
  9. Arnon, S., & Reichel, N. (2007). Who is the ideal teacher? Am I? Similarity and difference in perception of students of education regarding the qualities of a good teacher and of their own qualities as teachers. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 13(5), 441-464.
  10. Lederman, Norman G., and Sandra K. Abell, eds. Handbook of research on science education. Vol. 2. Routledge, 2014.
  11. Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
  12. Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard educational review, 57(1), 1-23.

Preview image: Classroom with teacher and students found on .

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Comments 2

Lauren Stewart's picture
Lauren Stewart | Fri, 02/08/2019 - 10:43

I am excited to read the next installment of this topic! Your emphasis on PCK reminded me of the Hattie effect size data I was just looking at last week. Teacher credibility has an effect size of 0.9 (0.4 is the baseline) and it goes way beyond subject knowledge. If a student believes you are a credible as a teacher, it is because they believe you know HOW to teach and you care that they learn, not just that you know your subject. Thanks for sharing!  

Josh Kenney's picture
Josh Kenney | Sat, 02/09/2019 - 07:26

Thank's for sharing about the Hattie effect size data. I took a look at it as well, and it is fascinating! In those data, it was interesting to see "subject matter knowledge" so low on the scale (0.11)! compared to something like "strategy to integrate prior knowledge" (0.93), which is a component of PCK.