Monday, May 9, 2011

Can you teach teaching?

Teacher education is an ironic concept. Do teachers have to be taught to do what they do? Is there some kind of systematic set of skills that can be learned and applied, or is it something you either instinctively know how to do or don't? The battle lines are drawn: art vs. science, nature vs. nurture, "teachers are born" vs. "teachers are made."

On some level, these are silly distinctions. Everybody knows that, while some people have more of a knack for teaching than others do, there is still a learning curve and specific skills that need to be gained over time. It's just common sense.

Or is it?

Consider the (odious yet ubiquitous) saying, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." What does this saying imply about the attitude toward teachers? First, it assumes a dichotomy between "doers" and "teachers"--one that heavily privileges people out doing things in the "real world." Second, it insinuates that teachers are second-rate--the people who couldn't hack it in an actual profession. Third, it implies that anything worth knowing or doing can't be taught. Think about it. In this Darwinian worldview, there are simply "those who can" and "those who can't." I doubt anyone subscribing to this particular point of view has much confidence that one of "those who can't" could be given a push forward by a teacher, by definition another member of the "can't" group. And those who "can" certainly have nothing to learn from teachers either, but must simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and follow their own brilliance to the inevitable pinnacle of destiny that awaits them.

Obviously, I don't believe a word of this. I don't think anyone is inherently a member of a "can" or "can't" group for anything. Whether someone "can" do something is influenced by disposition, natural skill, ambition, the availability of resources, instruction/mentoring, encouragement, social conditioning, willingness to take risks, practice, and much more. Teachers can provide resources, instruction, encouragement, and opportunities to practice, and they can more easily direct those with natural skill, ambition, and the proper disposition. This applies to teachers of teachers as well. Do some teachers have more natural skill than others? Yes. Does this mean they won't struggle, feel overwhelmed, and cry regularly in their offices? No. Days of despair are common to us all. But regardless of how hard we had to work, it's worth it to sincerely say, "We're pretty awesome at teaching."