Friday, July 24, 2009

Those who can, Teach

Fair warning: This blog post is a major rant.

I am a writer. I'm proud of that, and I'm working hard to hone my craft. Right now, I'm still in the aspiring author category. Writing feeds my soul, but it does not pay my bills. Teaching pays my bills.

I am a teacher, and I am VERY proud of that label. I just read a blog post by a published writer whose work I admire. He repeated a maxim that we teachers hear often. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Normally, I chalk that statement up to ignorance and the speaker's own need to boost their self-importance by belittling someone else. I'm usually able to let it roll off my back and move on, but to hear those words from a writer makes me ill.

That statement contains two erroneous premises, one explicit and one implied. The explicit premise is that teachers are teaching because they are incapable of doing the thing they teach. This premise is inherently stupid. If I couldn't write, how in the hell could I teach someone else to write? Writing isn't some theoretical pursuit that happens in the abstract. Every writer out there, including the misguided author who made the statement, knows this. I wonder if this writer has ever offered to critique a colleague's work? How would he be able to offer any guidance at all if he could not write himself? Every time I sit down with a student, I'm essentially critiquing their writing.

The implied premise is what really crawls all over me. Essentially, it says that teaching is a fall-back position that anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of a given content area can do. Saying that those "who can't, teach" fails to acknowledge that teaching requires an entirely different skill set from the subject being taught. My best friend is a math teacher in the army reserves where she is a drill Sargent. She tells me about some of her fellow drill Sargents who scream in a private's face for doing a task wrong, but don't teach them how to do it right. She can see they don't know how to break the task down and explain it to someone else. She often goes quietly behind them and teaches the poor kid how to correctly perform the task. She is a teacher. She owns that skill set.

As an English teacher, I have to assess each student's proficiency level as a reader or writer, determine what steps should be taken to move that student forward, implement those steps, and then assess the degree to which those steps succeeded. That student comes to me for an hour each day in a class of 30 other students who require the same attention. I'm a tremendous reader and a good writer, but those skills are only half of what I need to do my job. This is why one in three teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it. The better maxim might be "those who can't stand the heat get the hell out of the kitchen."

I expect the self-important, entitled, ignorant assholes of the world not to understand the satisfaction gained from improving their communities through service. I'm just floored to hear this statement from someone who so obviously benefited from good teachers on the way to his success. Writing is an act of creation that requires sweat and hard work, but reaching the end of a story, novel, research paper successfully can produce a unrivaled natural high. Teaching is also an act of creation. Providing the opportunity and guidance for a student to acquire a skill that will enrich the rest of their lives is an incredible act of creation. It happens incrementally and usually quietly, but the ripples are infinite.


  1. I'm for sure feeling the whole aspiring author thing. It IS hard! And writing is really a full time job--except you don't get paid until you finish. I find it very hard to weave my personal writing into my packed schedule of work and other responsibilites that are "more realistic and pressing."

  2. It's your pal, Anonymous Saltshaker, here. You've written a great and important post. I attended public schools in some very poor neighborhoods. I had (mostly) wonderful, brilliant, thoughtful, inspirational teachers. No question that they could "do", but they also were gracious and selfless enough to teach. I learned to love mathematics, and literature, and physics. My teachers helped me find the motivation to study, helped me apply for a scholarship, and encouraged me to attend University when I had no intention of doing so. And it worked out. I've been incredibly fortunate in life. Pinch-yourself, "I'm actually here", fortunate. And it happened because of some beautiful teachers.

    So please, ignore the "self-important, ignorant assholes" of the world. You are engaged in a righteous work, a sanctified calling. Don't let anyone tell you different.

  3. Thanks Anonymous. I appreciate your words of encouragement. I think anyone who is successful in their work can look back and pinpoint a teacher somewhere who encouraged them, myself included.

    Thanks for reading...I enjoy your comments.