“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” – adapted from a line from George Bernard Shaw’s comedic stage play, Man and Superman. (Original line: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”)
As you might expect, the stickiness of this quote in pop culture irritates teachers to no end. Though it was written in 1903, its condemnation of the teaching profession continues to echo throughout school hallways today. The phrase implies if one were truly skilled in a discipline, they’d be working in that field. Only the failures and rejects who couldn’t cut it find their way into teaching. It’s a dim view of educators to say the least.
When I first started teaching, my students would ask me what I was working on outside of school. I’d often reply, with no small amount of embarrassment, “Nothing.” I was at full capacity learning to teach.
There was no roadmap for teaching film in the early 2000’s, especially at a high school level. Very few programs existed as far as I could tell, so I had to build my curriculum from the ground up. It’s one thing to have a skill, but it’s another to break it down to its essence so as to instruct someone else how to perform it. In every aspect of filmmaking, I had to step into the beginner’s mind to determine the pressure points in the process where students might have difficulty and have practical solutions ready at the hip. The more lessons I got under my belt, the more familiar I became with the landscape my students were traversing so I could guide them around the most common roadblocks. This deep dive to deeply understand filmmaking could best be summed up by arguably one of the greatest teachers in history,
“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” — Aristotle
All this is to say, contrary to Shaw’s line, there is a unique and specific skillset to the teaching profession, completely separate from the subject-matter being taught.
As you might suspect, I disagree with the assumption Shaw’s line implies. But recently, I’ve considered if it could be rephrased a bit to portray a more accurate portrayal of teaching.
“Those who teach, can’t do, because they teach.”
I realize it deflates the spirit of Shaw’s original sentiment, but it speaks to the greater truth of my 18 years of teaching experience.
The English teacher who stays up all night grading papers doesn’t have the bandwidth to work on writing the next great American novel. The art teacher who coaches soccer in the evenings and weekends, doesn’t also get to work on her own series of still life paintings. The math teacher who grades over a hundred homework assignments every day won’t have the time to sink her teeth into hash tables and cryptocurrency. The job of teaching engulfs time the way my kids engulf cupcakes.
So it’s fair to say there’s a gap between the doers and the teachers, though we could sit here and argue “the why.” I propose that we, who are teachers in the classroom, need to start bridging this gap, if only to stay connected to the experience of being a lifelong student.
We should find uncharted waters and learn to swim in it. And when we finally get comfortable, we get out, find another unfamiliar body of water and do it all over again. We could navigate deeper into the subject-matters we teach or dive into completely different worlds, as long as we continue to upgrade our skills. We do this for ourselves because it’s good for the soul, and we do it for our students because we better empathize with their experience.
We who can…do and teach.