“Those who cannot do”

Within the past year or so, it’s come to my attention that “those who cannot do teach” is not meant as a compliment.  To readers, that probably seems obvious, but somehow the context clues never added up for me.

It’s noble, to me, to accept your own shortcomings.  And in realizing them, to channel your passion into making sure that others take up the mantle of what you care about.  If someone loves English, but doesn’t have the skills to be a writer or an editor or whatever you do loving English, I think the best thing he can do is try to instill that love in young people in the hopes that someone more talented eventually does what he wanted to.

Maybe that’s an overly rosy view of teaching, but one that’s far more productive than the one that belittlingly tells us “those who cannot do teach.”  I think the phrase ought to be a compliment, and acknowledgement of dedication.  It would be easy for failed engineer to bitterly abandon her love of math and seek a career in an unrelated field, but the humility and honesty involved in teaching math, I think, is admirable.

Of course, not all or even most teachers teach because they’ve failed at anything, but the fact that this phrase is out there means that the perception is.  I think that both the premise (teachers teach because they can’t “do”) and the connotation (that this is a bad thing) are wrong, but the connotation is actually more troubling, since it’s a perceptual issue and not a factual one.

Some of our most beloved figures are teachers, like Mr. Rogers or Bill Nye, but that respect doesn’t carry over into the everyday.  It should – most of what you know was taught by somebody, and anything you teach yourself is built on things taught by others.  Let’s give teachers their due.


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