Do bad students make better teachers?

There are not whole a lot of early 90s Steve Martin movies I’ve only seen once that I think about at least twice a month. Actually, there is only one and it is Leap of FaithIn case your interest has been piqued here is the trailer (be sure to keep your eyes open for future action star and former Belfast pool champion Liam Neeson). I promise to come back to the movie after a sharp turn into the world of teaching and teacher training which will start after the movie poster. It should probably go without saying but there are spoilers for this 1992 movie within the post.


In my previous job as a teacher trainer for in-service Korean teachers of English there were plenty of “aha moments” for me. One of them was talking to a teacher about her students back at school and how surprising it was for her that many students simply did not care about English or her English class. I think she found this unfathomable. You see, she was always among the smartest and hardest working students in class and always did her best. I guess she found it so challenging to deal with students who didn’t care at all about school because it was so far from her experience. I think it was important for me as a trainer to understand where she was coming from. Still, I found her surprise surprising.

As a teacher, I have no problem empathizing with and understanding students who give absolutely no shits about school. I was that kid. I have memories of biology class my junior year where all my classmates were scrambling to hurry up and complete their homework, mostly by copying, just before class. I just sat there with no homework and no desire to even copy from my classmates. My decision not to copy was not based on any sense of morality, I was too lazy to even copy. I didn’t care about the assignment or my grade enough to copy. I spent the few minutes before class just chillin’ (like a non-villain but not like a hero of any sort). When it came time to hand in my homework I just said, “Sorry I didn’t do it” but I guess I wasn’t all that sorry because I wouldn’t end up doing my homework the next time either.

Back in high school (and even earlier) I had no motivation for schoolwork and just went through the motions and did the bare minimum required to pass. I don’t remember exactly but I think I mostly somehow managed to get Bs and Cs along with the occasional D. I don’t think I ever got an F in anything except handwriting in around 5th grade (some might say I was divining the increased importance of personal computers and the internet in the future). I do know that my parents and teachers were not exactly thrilled with my academic performance. I am not really sure how I passed because I didn’t do much of anything in terms of assignments.

I often wonder if my poor performance as a student is actually an advantage as a teacher because I can better understand slackers or if it is a disadvantage or of no meaningful advantage at all. I wonder what other people think on this one. I’d appreciate any thoughts or comments on this, especially including personal experiences. My opinion at this moment is that being a “bad” student in the past is not a real advantage but it is generally advantageous to understand students and their motivations (or lack of motivation) but being a crappy student earlier on in life is not required in order to do this. Again, I’d love to know what you think.

Perhaps you are wondering how or if this ties in with the movie mentioned above. Well, there is a scene in the movie where the preacher played by Steve Martin is confronted (you might be “taken” by surprise when you see who does the confronting) for being a fraud and a criminal and not the clean and righteous preacher he has been pretending to be. He turns it around by stating he is better prepared to serve his flock because he has not always walked on the straight and narrow. This scene (which can be seen starting at around the 2:45 mark and truly picking up around the 4:40 mark) comes to mind when I consider teachers who have always been angels struggling to understand students who are far from that.

I can almost imagine giving an impassioned plea if for some bizarre reason training course participants took exception to my less-than-stellar high school transcript. I might say “If you wanna learn how to motivate the unmotivated who you gonna talk to? Someone who has always been motivated and at the top of the class or someone who struggled to be motivated in school?” before going on to explain how I am uniquely positioned to understand students who lack motivation. I have been thinking about this blog post for years (and the movie for even longer). Perhaps writing about it will help me exorcise my demons. Thanks for reading.



  1. Marc

    I’m on the side of not many people are good all-rounders and lots of teachers are either hypocrites or have selective amnesia about their studies. I think tapping our weaknesses as well as strengths is important in teaching. Cheers!

  2. Hana Tichá

    “I was too lazy to even copy…” Haha, this really made me laugh. By the way, earlier today, one of my colleagues made an interesting comment about my eldest son who, coincidentally, seems to be giving absolutely no shits about schools these days. She said that she fully understands his attitude because she was once the same kind of student – she just did the bare minimum required to pass because that was all she needed at that point. Now, I don’t know whether her compassion stems from the fact that she was a lazy student or the fact that she’s a Virgo 😉 Anyway, I wasn’t a crappy student myself but it helps a lot when I can occasionally see the process of learning from a different perspective. So, going to conferences and taking part in workshops, where I have the opportunity to put on the student hat, is what helps me understand how my students feel now.

  3. Chris P. Madden

    Regarding your key question, my similarly poor grades in high school that continued into university I can now ascribe to sheer boredom. Disinterest in the subject and no empathic connection to the teachers. In fact, I got only one A in university, in Educational Sociology, a class where the always attuned teacher allowed us to choose topics to write about and choose assessment methods, techniques I use in every class now. Relevant, localized and timely supplemental materials helps, too.

  4. Chewie

    As always, I appreciate how you relate your occasionally offbeat references to pop culture to teaching. This post resonates with me because I’ve always been more likely to be befriend a slacker than a valedictorian. I actually got into teaching partly because having so many friends were dissatisfied with school. I spent a lot of time listening to their complaints about why school sucked and decided that when I became a teacher, I’d remember them and do my best to keep my classes interesting. I haven’t always been successful, but it has kept me grounded.

    So yes, I do think “it takes one to know one.” I haven’t been that wayward son, but I have known plenty of them.

  5. Chewie

    Whoops. Screwed up the first line.
    I appreciate how you relate pop culture to teaching…and use offbeat movies and such to spur reflections on teaching.

  6. iva at the frontier

    One of the best selling books on passing postgraduate medical education exams in the UK is written by a guy who failed them 7 times, it’s possible that the very best teachers are the ones who have not been motivated (which was apparently the case initially) and then find themselves being forced to apply themselves to rise to the challenge. These guys have both the empathy and the grit!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s