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."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. [Hmmm my comment was deleted from here too. Good thing I saved it!!]

    Oh my gosh, I didn't know if I should laugh or cry when I watched the "Days of Despair" video you shared--though really I just laughed. My husband is a Humanities PhD (Germanic Linguistics), so there were certainly parts of the video that hit a little too close to home. :)

    We often talk about this horrible quote that "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." I think this sentiment is, unfortunately, stronger in the US than other parts of the world. There are many other countries where teachers and researchers (even in the Humanities) are much more well respected, which is why we’re moving to Germany in about a month. My husband was given a two-year research position at a university there, and we will likely look for other opportunities to keep us there longer--possibly indefinitely.

    It’s amazing to me that even without the respect and salary, there is still a decent amount of interest in being a teacher. Just yesterday we were talking with a friend who is a financial adviser and he said he’d like to go back to school and eventually teach. Even though we "get it" on some level, we both asked, "Why?" I think the decision to teach is often an emotional one—so for that reason, perhaps teaching is more “artistic”.

  3. Yes, I also watched the video at the end and found it very funny and a little close to home. My partner is a cultural geographer and is moving towards the final year of her PhD and will enter the academic job market in a year or so. It is pretty alarming that pursuing an advance degree in the Humanities should be such a gamble. What does that say about the value of the arts, literature, philosophy and so forth in our society? Argh.

    I feel sad for anyone who puts stock in the odious "Those who can't, teach" adage. Perhaps they've never had an amazing or even really good teacher? Or maybe they've blocked those experiences and can only remember the negative? I've certainly had my share of mediocre teaching (I'm a proud graduate of the Boston Public Schools!!), but I've also, even within the struggling, mostly low-income BPS, had some absolutely terrific teachers--learning with them was a transformative experience. And to imagine that they did that under really challenging circumstances while being held in such low regard by society. I am very, very grateful to them.

    Kimberly, best of luck to you as you prepare for the move to Germany! I hope it's a excellent experience for both you and your husband.

    And to all of you, thanks for the stimulating conversations!