Those Who Teach, Can


“He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches” (George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman).

I’ve always hated that quotation, which is not surprising since I taught English to eighth grade and high school students for thirty-three years.  And like some things we hate (as opposed to dislike or deride), part of the reason I despised it so much was my fear that it might be true.  One of the recurring themes in our public-education-bashing times, after all, is the canard that only mediocre college students go into teaching.  But as I’ve matured (translation:  gotten old), I now understand the reality:  This quote is only partially true.  Better would be, “He who can, does.  He who can’t, hasn’t done it long enough. He who really can, teaches.”

You see, doing something is the primary way to become capable.  At first, we can’t do much of anything, but once we start trying, we get better and better until we are no longer trying, but are, in fact, doing.  Toddlers don’t start out walking; in the beginning, all they can do is struggle to stand up and grab hold of anything that will help them remain erect.  Then they take a tentative step or two before falling flat on their butts repeatedly.  Fortunately, they couldn’t care less about what others say about their many failures, and despite the pain (which is mitigated in part by the padding we generously supply in the place they fall most),  they just keep plugging away until they are able to stagger from room to room, even though they topple over every once in a while.  Eventually, they become adept at walking to the point they don’t even think about it any more. (And unfortunately, when we get old enough, the whole walking process basically reverses itself.)

Jobs are like that, except that since we’re now old enough to communicate knowledge to one another, we try to help each other out by training the new people and explaining the basics of what they need to do to them.  But even then, the new people have to adapt all the information and advice they get to fit through the filters of their own unique situations and personalities.  There’s just no way we can ever “master” the skills needed for the various careers we take on without doing the job, sometimes for many years, in order to figure out how what we learned interacts with both the reality of the daily grind and the filter of the various traits, aptitudes, and eccentricities we all possess.  Nobody expects that a surgeon, auto body repair person, or tax lawyer will be able to function perfectly right from the start—they are closely supervised and assisted until their own experience and understanding allows them to be able to function independently.  Of course they get training, but mostly they learn through imitating what others have shown them until they have the skills and confidence to forge ahead on their own.

Teaching sort of skips the on-the-job training part.  “Trial by fire” is a gross understatement of the challenges most first-year teachers face.  Student teaching—when college senior education majors take over some or all of a regular classroom teacher’s classes for a semester/sixteen weeks is woefully inadequate for something as complicated as teaching, but that’s the closest future teachers get to doing the job before they get hired.  Good education programs—like the one I went through at Illinois State back in the seventies—inform students of all aspects of teaching (planning, student psychology, discipline, classroom management, to name a few) as well as academic subject matter, which is the easiest part of the teaching curriculum to learn as well as the area to which the most time and classes are devoted.  But when you take charge of that first class on your first day, you’re on your own.  Of course you will be occasionally observed and mentored, but most teachers can pony up a decent class for the four-to-six times a supervisor/evaluator visits.  The kids also behave differently when some stranger is in the room, which can minimize the up-for-grabs atmosphere that many inexperienced teachers dread for their first couple of years.  Mentors aren’t given enough time to do much more than dispense advice during planning time, which isn’t the same as working together in a classroom, where the real action is.

Even experienced teachers in new situations can find themselves groping on their own for solutions to their issues.  My first year at Hinsdale South High School was actually my ninth overall.  I was hired in mid-August (yes, very late in the hiring season) to teach an Advanced Placement English class which no one else in the department had ever taught (as well as two other preparations).  Before that school year began, I was able to locate the file cabinet of the teacher who had taught the class the year before and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a neat label on one of the drawers for the A.P. class.  Then, in one of those slow motion moments of horror that we all experience, I slid the drawer open to find a single sheet of paper inside that listed the readings for the class.  That was it.  (Apparently, this teacher had left in a huff and took all the materials with her, not bothering to leave her replacement—me—anything which might have made my job easier.)  And you better believe I struggled that year trying to keep ahead of the most talented seniors in the school as I taught Plato, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and T.S. Eliot for the first time.  I’m still kind of amazed they gave this assignment to a teacher new to the building who had only taught eighth graders before—from The Outsiders to Hamlet in a single year!  Plus, I also had another class that no one else in the department taught—English I Honors—not to mention a class of low-level juniors.  Most of my education-related nightmares can be traced back to feelings of inadequacy and lack of control from this first year of teaching high school.  There simply needs to be a better system of guidance and assistance for teachers who are new to their profession and/or school than just letting them flounder and hoping they survive so that the next year will be better for everybody, especially the students.

Teaching is doubly difficult because you have to take skills you already possess and somehow transfer them to people who are much younger than you and often have no interest in those skills.  In relation to Shaw’s adage, you can already “do,” but now you have to motivate some twenty-five other people who are required to be with you to do something they don’t want to do.  If you don’t understand the challenges of that, then you’ve never tried to teach a reluctant learner.  When I started teaching, I had been an ace at grammar, excelling at being able to put my commas in the right places and knowing when I needed an adverb form rather than an adjective.  But trying to explain to my eighth-grade students those first few years the difference between definite and indefinite pronouns or how a prepositional phrase functioned in a sentence was beyond me.  I could do those things without even thinking about it, but trying to wipe befuddled or indifferent expressions off the faces of my students because they couldn’t grasp what was going on or couldn’t care less took several years to begin to figure out.  It’s way different to be able to help someone else to understand what you know than it is to learn something.  And teachers have to be able to do both things.

And it’s even harder to teach someone to appreciate something, even after you have taught them the basic ideas.  My kids would come to understand what was going on in Romeo and Juliet by the time we were done with the unit, but it was also my job to try to impart a love for the brilliance that was Shakespeare’s language/poetry.  Sure, they all could tell you that “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet,” was Juliet’s ruminating that just because Romeo was a member of the Montague clan (her family’s mortal enemy), it didn’t change his essential wonderful nature; but I was also supposed to assist them in seeing what a beautiful turn of phrase that was and to motivate them to seek that kind of metaphorical splendor in their own language.  If you don’t think that’s a tough task, then sit your teenager down right now and try to get him/her to appreciate that the Beatles’ music was a revolutionary step forward in legitimizing the rhythm and blues they had “borrowed” from American blacks.  Or attempt to teach them that the hard work you do for them should earn you their undying respect now, not twenty years from now when they have kids of their own.  No adults who have raised children would ever accept the “Those who can…” cliché as accurate if they stopped to think how it applies to child rearing and the most important teachers of all:  parents.

All of which leads to questions as to the best ways to help fledgling teachers prepare for the challenges that await them in their initial classrooms and to ease them into the fray their initial years on the job.  We regularly see articles like this one which question how effective college education training programs are, not to mention challenges to how worthwhile teacher training is (as I wrote about in a recent blog article).  So next time, we’ll take a look at some methods that could help new and student- teachers to acclimate to the education world more effectively than the throw-them-in-the-classroom-and-hope system we have in place right now.  There are alternatives that could lessen some of the “teacher burnout” articles teachers regularly write and maybe stop so many second-through-fifth-year teachers from abandoning the field.

For other ideas on how to improve public education, you can check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at


One comment

  1. Pingback: Better New Teachers |

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