We’ve all heard (and likely used) the expression: “Those who can, do. And those who can’t, teach.”
I came across this gem of wisdom again this week on Facebook, and had my usual teacher’s reaction: heh-heh-heh, mild irritation, some-truth-to-it. You know, humility. The best way to learn is with some humility, so it follows the best way to teach involves some humility as well.
After all, I taught drama and never became much of an actor. I taught public speaking and presentation, and am still quite some way from being a world class presenter. I taught negotiation without ever seriously considering trying to find work in that vital field.
As a result, I’ve been quiet about this little truism for decades. A wise approach, right?
Well, WRONG. I’ve just decided it’s time to come out of the corner swinging. I will not sit still for such a such a colossal piece of ill-intentioned nonsense for one more second.
After all, teaching is a remarkable profession. Can you begin to imagine the skills involved—in understanding how people learn and then retain what they’ve learned? In appreciating the difference between how children learn and how adults learn? In the intricate application of developmental theory? As someone who’s spent my entire adult life (that doesn’t count playing school with my cousins when we were kids) studying how people learn, I do have some appreciation for the vastness of that body of knowledge. And every time I read something in the field or talk with an educator, I have an appreciation for how much I have still to learn.
I’m reminded of Carole, the first Montessori teacher I ever encountered. She was fresh out of teacher training, the size of a small poodle and barely 25 years old. But boy, could she teach! She could watch a three-year-old and understand whether they were ready or not to get into basic arithmetic, and if they were, to lead them into the magical world of mathematics; she could teach them to iron a napkin and identify an eastern European country. She’d been well-trained, entering her field with a good body of knowledge and a passion for having little ones learn.
I was no slouch myself. I could put together a lesson plan for a senior drama class that would have them transform their lives and perform in a way that astounded them and others. I could design and deliver a course for presenters that gave them a new approach to preparing and enabled them to present with courage and authenticity. I have encountered many good teachers in my life and each of them has left me with new information and insights, altering the way I think about and do certain things.
Another thing the phrase overlooks is a remarkable truth: what we want to be good at, but aren’t, we tend to get passionate about. And as we learn, we really get into that subject; we can speak about it with understanding and insider information. One of the most articulate proponents of this I’ve encountered is Australian educator Stephanie Burns. A complete non-musician, Stephanie taught herself guitar, observed the steps (or “chunks”, as she calls them) involved, and then successfully taught others. A non-artist, she taught herself how to draw and then successfully taught even me in a workshop one evening. A self-declared couch-potato with a terror of water, she took on a triathlon, and observed the “chunks” it took to accomplish it. (Day 1: Sit on the bleachers at the pool and watch. Day 2: Buy swimmers….)
Those who teach do what Stephanie Burns does: start by honouring the flame of passion, then carefully observe and finally share with generosity.
Here’s what I think about education: it’s the key to pretty much all deliberate and lasting change. As a society, we seem to be much fonder of a political approach, because it looks like a time-and-energy-saving short cut. Want to save lives? – force people to wear seatbelts. Keep people off drugs? – make them illegal. Find money to implement reforms? – tax everyone. That’s the legislative way.
Education is a much longer, harder route, but in my view the only one that will ultimately produce results, not resistance; understanding, not rote. And as Stephanie Burns would say, learning occurs in painfully small chunks. World peace? – an early chunk is to be willing to learn how to listen. A clean planet? – show us how to recognise and take responsibility for our own pollution. Using education as your approach, you’re in for the long haul.
So you won’t be able to use that phrase around me anymore without setting off a rant. I am abandoning my sense of humour about it. I’ll be pointing out that your intention is to disparage teaching and learning, and, really, why anyone would want to do that, other than to appear clever and worldly? I might go as far as to imply that you are someone who can’t teach and aren’t much interested in learning. You may see a side of me you haven’t seen before.
Here some REAL truths:
Those who can’t put up with ignorance, teach. Those who can’t resist helping someone who wants to be able to do something better, teach. Those who can’t imagine a world without new and exciting things to be accomplished, teach.
Those who make a difference, teach.