Most people are familiar with the maxim, “Those who can’t do, teach.” We can speculate regarding its beginnings, but it’s come to be a bit of a “slam” on teachers as it implies those who fail at doing things can always teach. I am hoping I can raise the maxim without raising the debate because I think the maxim suggests an interesting question: “What about those who can’t teach? What do they do?”
I suppose we could have a “complete the maxim contest.” Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, (fill in the blank).
See, once you dig below the implication that those who fail can always fall back on teaching, there’s an even more insidious implication that teaching doesn’t require very much skill. If you believe that, consider the experience of a recent adult student–and try to believe that the point of the story is not to brag about MY skill–it is to demonstrate the lack of logic behind thinking teaching doesn’t require skill.
She came to me for some help with a fairly specific subject. (I’m omitting lots of details to avoid embarrassing anybody.) Our initial discussion included her observation, “I really suck at this” and a high level of doubt that she would or could improve much. So here we have a situation where not only does she think she’s not very skilled–she also doesn’t have much confidence in me as a teacher. We did have a little chat about how we unconsciously prove ourselves correct.
We didn’t have to talk long before I figured out at least one reason she didn’t have much confidence in my teaching ability or herself. The person who’d been “teaching” her apparently sucked at teaching. He is a subject matter expert without question; but that’s a big part of the problem. He keeps on teaching the material HE understands but doesn’t understand why his student “doesn’t get it.”
I can help him with that. She isn’t “getting it” in a large part because he isn’t very good at explaining (teaching) it. Let me hasten to add, I’m not saying he’s a bad person. He actually does care about this student. He also obviously cares a great deal about the subject. He just doesn’t “care” (Ben Franklin observed, “Ignorance is bliss.”) about how he teaches. In fairness, it’s not his profession. But at some level, he apparently subscribes to the idea that teaching isn’t very difficult.
So I worked with the student for a while, ultimately sending her home with a lot of stickers on her sweater. “Good job! Wow! A+! You did it!” She’s pretty sure her kids are going to think that’s both funny and cool. I’m not naive enough to claim she “got it” all and neither is she. But she was at least wearing a smile with her stickers and feeling like she was making some learning progress.
I can’t help but wonder if she’ll tell her “teacher” that she may suck at the subject, but he really sucks at teaching. Another debate we often have in the teaching arena is whether or not the teacher has to be good at or well-educated in a particular subject or discipline to teach it. Personally, I’d like to declare that an invalid debate.
There is a proverb attributed to Buddha that almost gets it right with the claim, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” That makes it sound a bit mystical and magical when it’s actually about a simple balance. There are teaching skills and there are learning skills. Both can and should be developed. A skilled teacher and a skilled learner create that magic. Suggesting that teaching requires little or no skill isn’t fair–it makes the learner totally responsible for the learning. Suggesting that learning requires little or no skill isn’t fair either because that makes the teacher totally responsible for the teaching. Maybe we should re-write the maxim.Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, learn.
Among the many things that can be learned is how to teach! In the last few decades we have been discovering some exciting new ways we can teach people because we are beginning to understand how people learn. So to those who think teaching isn’t very difficult, I agree, it’s not–unless you want to do it well. And you won’t do it well until you understand that teaching is really about learning.