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‘Just’ a Teacher?

Guest Author
Guest Author

All of us have heard the line. ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” It’s from George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play Man and Superman. Over a century later, and the derogatory phrase stubbornly persists.

The meaning seems to be that teaching is a role filled by individuals who fail in their chosen field. However, there are several reasons why this is simply untrue.

Recently, Senator Jason Howell (R-H01) from Murray responded to a retired professor from Murray State about SB 138 regarding the bill restricting content taught. In that response, Sen. Howell showed his disdain for teachers by using the Shaw quote to denigrate those who teach.

This misstep should cost him dearly, because MSU was founded as Murray State Teacher’s College.

So by applying an Aristotelian syllogism, we see that
— MSU prepares teachers.
— If all teachers can’t do,
— Then all MSU education majors can’t do.
By the way, Mr. Howell, if this is what you think, then what are you waiting for ? Defund all Teacher preparation programs and Education departments statewide!

I digress.

Most of our greatest “doers” have been great teachers.

In the century since Shaw’s drama was first performed, from the sciences to the arts, human knowledge has seen an explosion of innovation. Spearheading this innovation have been many great minds, some of which have become household names for their contributions to their fields: Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, J. R. R. Tolkien, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Noam Chomsky, and J. K. Rowling.

Today, teaching is the best avenue to funding, equipping, and access to the cutting edge of most disciplines.

In addition, teaching hones knowledge and ability.

In most of us, the urge to ask ‘why?’ diminishes over time, through indifference, fear of judgement, or a shrinking sphere of interest. In contrast, children will pick a willing brain freely.

As a teacher, being prepared to answer questions is part of the learning process – the Socratic method. A deep and true understanding of what you are teaching is necessary to convey the nature of the subject regardless of the age of the student.

All too often, we take for granted knowledge we hold as complete and infallible. Until we’re forced by another to reconsider those held understandings, we may never see them as incomplete or malformed. Thus it’s in being challenged that teachers may reconsider why they hold a position in the first place.

Anyone intending to be effective at passing along skills and knowledge in a discipline will need some understanding of the teaching discipline. Teaching comes with its own set of challenges removed from the subject at hand. In the modern world, becoming a teacher generally requires certification, which often involves a specialized degree.

Teaching the young involves challenges such as disciplining unruly students, empathy, recognizing learning difficulties, awareness of classroom politics, and the translation of complex information into age-appropriate explanations and examples (just to name a few). Perhaps most importantly, though, teaching the young requires cultivating their curiosity so learning is welcomed as an adventure they want to continue.

“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.” –Horace Mann

“When one teaches, two learn.” – Robert Heinlein

Instructing adults is no less of a challenge, due to ethical issues, adult responsibilities, and inflated egos. And adults are far better at hiding their confusion, so teachers need be vigilant of pupils too shy to admit they don’t understand.

A teacher needs to be aware of when they themselves are forcing their own beliefs upon their students. A teacher’s job ends at educating and does not extend to indoctrination – like a politician!

Perhaps put best by Amos Bronson Alcott:

“The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence.”

Where, then, does this wrongheaded belief that teachers are largely incapable come from?

First, is the under-appreciation for teachers in the Western world. This stems from societal ills, funding cuts to public education, and the change in direction education took in response to the industrial revolution. Education has become largely about producing workers, and not thinkers. This has led to underpaid and overworked teachers, where many who aren’t truly passionate about teaching may instead choose to ‘do’ work in their field, rather than accept substandard pay and substandard conditions.

Second, there is the general rebellious nature of children who tend to think and speak poorly of those in authority over them when pressed to take actions they don’t necessarily want to, such as homework. Many of these people grow up holding onto those notions, whether substantiated or not, and find validation in them through the ‘those who can’t do, teach’ adage.

In the end we are not born all-knowing, and society can only function, prosper, and endure on the passage of knowledge and know-how from one to another. The famous Greek general Alexander may never have become “the Great” were he not taught by Aristotle, who was himself taught by Plato, a student of Socrates … and so on.

Speaking of Aristotle, I’ll let him have the last word regarding George Bernard Shaw’s ridiculous claim.

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”


Written by John James Alexander, a pseudonym for a Kentucky educator.

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