I’ve long been fascinated by an assumption that lies at the heart of academia: that great students make great teachers.
Here’s what generally happens: students who show scholarly promise get chosen as teaching assistants. This launches them on a path to professorship, where they’ll sustain the cycle by earmarking their own star students for teaching duties. As far as we’re concerned these select few are the keepers of the flame—transferring holy curiosity across the generations.
The Student Teacher Pipeline
However, I’m not sold. I’m suspicious of the notion that the skills of a star student (retention, comprehension, personal ambition) are in alignment with those of a great teacher (empathy, patience, perseverance). In fact, I’ve met plenty of natural students whose curiosity, methodology, and drive are so specific to them that they’re practically non-transferable.
How can we expect that someone whose superpower is sequestering themselves in a library overnight with a stack of Chaucer is also going to excel at reaching dozens of diverse learners? We keep stubbornly insisting on this student → teacher pathway — which is probably how we get all of these imperious and erudite professors.
The Management Assumption
The student → teacher pathway isn’t unique to lecture halls, of course. I’ve found that workplaces generally follow the same formula when it comes to advancement.
When we identify high-performing talent, we bestow on them our highest reward: managing others to perform similarly.
While the logic may be sound, I’m skeptical of “all roads lead to management” schemes of seniority. Once again, there’s an alignment problem here. We assume that those who can do should also teach — franchising out perspectives to apprentices and passing skills along, as if management is a matter of pouring knowledge into new vessels.
Much like the student → teacher pathway, this performer → manager track includes a fatal assumption: it undervalues management as a skill. It says “hey, you’re great at growing oranges. Have you considered training farmers?”
Like teaching, managing employees is a distinct and discrete area of expertise — not some perk or ceremonial badge of honor. Great managers are able to draw excellence out of their charges, building courage, providing achievable challenges, and supplying sufficient emotional support. While management is a worthy aspiration, it shouldn’t be a standard assumption.
Different Kinds of Leadership
Particularly enlightened organizations have adjusted for this assumption by designating different kinds of leaders. Some separate their senior performers into people leaders and practice leaders—an adjustment that better accommodates neurodiversity and personality type.
I’ve known many talented professionals who felt saddled by management responsibilities. Why should a brilliant graphic designer be rewarded for her ability with the task of approving timesheets? Why should your best salesperson have to pivot to developing junior staff when they could be out there winning you work? There’s only so much time in a week, after all.
Usually, the answer is fear. We demand that our high performers manage so we can “future-proof” our organizations and “grow talent from within.” Unfortunately, this same effort has the opposite effect, driving people away because they no longer get to do what they love.
Do you have a real performer on your hands? Consider advancing them by giving them more freedom, more authority, or more resources. Make sure you aren’t making assumptions about management. Not all star students long to be teachers.