Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bathroom Monologue: “Those who can’t do, teach.” -Anonymous

“I’ve never understood that phrase. William Shakespeare. Niels Bohr. Bruce Lee. James D. Watson. Michael Faraday. Stephen King. Bill Clinton. All of them teachers who were famous for work in their respective fields.

“But beyond that: isn’t the music teacher who picks up a cello and shows her pupil who to tune the strings doing? Doesn’t the very act of her playing the music as example, and being able to bring others into competence with the technical proficiency, demonstrate her ability to ‘do?’

“But beyond them: Jesus Christ was a teacher. He was, so I’ve read, also God. If teachers can’t ‘do,’ and God is omnipotent, and ‘omnipotence’ is the ability to do anything to the utmost– isn’t there a grievous flaw in someone’s claim?

“Since adolescence, ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ has struck me as the refrain of the student who can’t do. Usually, it’s of the student who can’t ‘do’ up to a teacher’s standards. You hate this authority figure, and so they must fail at what they’re passionate about, not based on evidence, but based on your disdain. Invention of someone else’s flaws to make ourselves feel better is something we can all do.”


  1. I've always hated that phrase. Thanks for kicking about a bit.

  2. That's a favorite phrase of those who can do, but can't teach. If they're not good at something, it must be a waste of time. That phrase is a particular favorite when sneering at those who can do both quite well.

  3. "And those who can't teach, administrate." :-P

    Anyway, very good points, John. Daughter Dearest is a music teacher, so I appreciate your using that as an example!

  4. I was a teacher for six years -- some English, which is what my BA is in, but mostly Computer Science. Believe it or not, most of the teachers I worked with were very fond of that phrase (but hey, it's a profession rife with black humour). So let me try and take it from a teacher's angle:

    In a way the saying is sort of backwards, because the reason "those who can't, teach" are in the "can't" category is because they are exhausted. Exhausted of their specialty subject, exhausted from putting themselves aside to let their students shine. One thing I learned when I was a teacher is that you can never, ever, take credit for anything, no matter how hard you work at it. If a student fails, it's your fault, but if they improve, it's because they changed their attitude and worked hard. Your endless unpaid after-class hours of help never have anything to do with it.

    Examples of writers who have explained this exhaustion well are Stephen King and Robert M. Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I was surprised you included King in your list, because he's on-record for saying his years of teaching English composition were the greatest threat he ever encountered to his writing career. Pirsig partly attributed his nervous breakdown to teaching too much.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has another clue for how the saying came about. Pirsig points out that when all you do is teach -- not research, not practise your craft, just teach and teach and teach and teach and teach -- eventually your knowledge gets stale and your curiosity gets killed. Ironically, this in turn makes you a crappier teacher.

    No-one who has never been a teacher would believe the myriad ways that teachers are encouraged to kill their own psyches. I was chastised for reading above the YA level during my bus rides to and from work, and told I should be reading stuff my students would read. Um, shouldn't I be showing them reading for pleasure continues into adulthood? Apparently not. I also saw a drama teacher get criticised for taking a part in a play put on by a community theatre group ("Shouldn't he be spending more time on after-school activities instead?") and a religion & history teacher be chastised by parents for running for the provincial parliament (because heaven forbid a teacher want to be a part of political change). Teachers were supposed to do stuff like that "during summer break" -- when they weren't taking upgrade courses and prepping for the next school year. It doesn't work. You can't put your entire self on hold for ten months and sacrifice yourself to nonstop inculcation and the support of other people's kids -- kids who are in turn inculcated by the greater society to think of disliking and making fun of you as the norm. They will like you, but they will also think it is the exception that they do.

    About two years into my teaching career, the provincial government enacted several education reforms. One that was punted around in the media a little but never came to be was the idea that teachers would never teach for more than five years in a row -- after that, they would have to quit and pursue work "in their chosen speciality", whether that was English or geography or accounting or whatever.

    The business and computer teachers all shrugged and said, "Hm, that could work." The English teachers, I'm sad to say (because although I mostly taught web design and multimedia, I was most formally qualified to teach English) all freaked out, because they had always heard jobs were impossible to get for English grads -- that's why many of them were teachers in the first place. The drama and music teachers laughed and said they would have no problem getting gigs, but getting paying ones was something else again.


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