Is it a Truth or Fallacy?
It has been said that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This was said by George Bernard Shaw in his 1905 stage play Man and Superman. Over a century later, and the derogatory phrase often thrown at educators in a disparaging way stubbornly persists.
In the event the phrase itself isn’t self-evident, the meaning carried is that teaching is first and foremost a role filled by individuals who fail to find adequate footing in their chosen vocation. However, there are several reasons this simply doesn’t hold water. Today, I’d like to debunk that fallacy.
I believe this phrase gets complicated if you measure your worth in money and status. Instead, it is all about personality and what you want out of a job. There are lots of people who know things, but who could not teach it to others because they lack the skills and desire to do so.
Why Do Teachers Teach?
Like most other questions in real life, this is subjective, and very context-based, so it is important to think holistically about it. The wording of the phrase seems to deny that teaching is by itself a form of doing. This doesn’t make sense if you think about it. Perhaps it is driven by the notion that there are terrible teachers or, for some reason, teachers can’t get a job in the “real world.” Of course, there are terrible teachers but there are terrible workers in every field.
Teachers teach because they want to make a difference in the lives of their students. No one teaches for the pay. The motivation is the gratitude teachers receive from their students. For example, I have been teaching an online course for Fordham University -- Ethics in Financial Reporting and Accounting. At the end of every class, several students will thank me for the session. They do not have to do this, and it is much appreciated to hear those words.
Having taught at the college level for over 40 years, I can attest to the hard work, intellectual challenges, and time commitment that enabled me to build a successful career as an educator. When I first heard the expression, publish or perish,” I was scared that if I didn’t meet what is sometimes an arbitrary goal then my teaching career would be cut short. I know many college educators who feel the same way.
Most educators are dedicated to their students. We will go out of our way to help our students. We seek to share knowledge and impart wisdom about life. In a field like mine – ethics – the desire for me has always been to engage students in debate about right and wrong so they build successful, ethical careers in their chosen field.
Aristotle was, of course, an important philosopher who also had a propensity toward education. He is a testament to the belief that our thinking and practice as educators must be infused with a clear philosophy of life. There has to be a deep concern for the ethical and political. We have continually to ask what makes for human flourishing? From this we should act to work for that which is good or ‘right’, rather than that which is merely ‘correct’.
Below is a list of some 20th century high achievers who have also taught.
- Albert Einstein
- Richard Feynman
- Robert Frost
- R. R. Tolkien
- Marie Curie
- Stephen Hawking
- Robert Oppenheimer
- Noam Chomsky
- K. Rowling
This list is anything but exhaustive. How can anyone claim teachers teach because they can’t do anything else when we look at such a list?
Teachers at every level strive to:
- Strengthen their knowledge of the subject matter.
- Learn the latest skills of teaching including successful online instruction—a whole new ballgame for teachers.
- Share their knowledge with students and prepare them for success in their chosen field.
- Encourage students to learn.
- Develop their ability to effectively communicate information.
- Develop their analytical reasoning skills.
- Develop their ethical skills.
- Help them to learn how to be a contributing member of society.
- Serve as role models.
Critics claim those who teach can’t handle the rough and tumble of the real world. Well, I challenge them to sit in on a college meeting where faculty debate curriculum issues where one department is pitted against another with respect to who teaches a course in a specific subject matter. Let them deal with the allocation of faculty resources and tenure and promotion issues.
Educators have stakeholders – the students, department, college, university, external advisory committees, the community in general and so on. At the secondary school level, increasingly teachers need to react to the demands of parents who want a role in curriculum development. There is nothing wrong with this. I’m just pointing out that stakeholder needs are a big part of being a teacher as it is in business, government, and NGOs.
Violence in Schools
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is often used as a disparaging remark, but why? In today’s world, it is problematic that teachers will prepare for a career in teaching for fear of having to dealing with unstable students, violence in schools, and parental involvement in choosing a curriculum. The latter may be a good thing but, taken to an extreme, it means to deal with wokeness and other forms of groupthink. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying these elements of our culture are bad. They have a role to play in ensuring diversity and inclusion. I simply mean that teachers have their plate full as is and piling on more considerations like these can make them a potential target of parents and the community, and even be subject to the cancel culture.
What’s worse, these days teachers must worry about mass shootings in schools. There were 51 school shootings in 2022 that resulted in injuries or deaths, the most in a single year since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018. Moreover, 74 people have been killed or injured by guns at American schools this year alone.
Potential Teachers in Decline
Researchers have found that perceptions of teacher prestige had fallen between 20 and 47 percent in the last decade and are at or near the lowest levels recorded over the last half century. Interest in the teaching profession among high school seniors and college freshmen has fallen 50 percent since the 1990s and the number of new entrants into the profession has fallen by roughly one third over the last decade. Teachers’ job satisfaction, they found, is at the lowest level in five decades. Who will teach the generations to come?
Ask yourself: Why would anyone make teaching their profession these days when their very safety is at risk? Would those that “can do” consider teaching in this environment even if they wanted to teach? I think not.
I leave you with a quote from Aristotle: “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”
Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on April 4, 2023. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/). and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage. Check out professional recommendations on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-mintz-aka-ethics-sage-98268126/.