I was getting ready for work this morning and my husband came in to wish me goodbye. He jokingly said, “Now remember: Don’t do. Teach.” Apparently, I have George Bernard Shaw to thank for his joke. Shaw wrote a line of dialogue in his play, “Man and Superman,” that read: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” This was in 1903.
Well, more than one hundred years later, the effects of this mindset are still being felt. Most of us have heard this quip throughout our lives, and starting very young. I don’t remember when I first heard it, but my father was a music teacher and my mother was an English teacher, and I must admit that I’ve never read a word that my mother has written and performance was never central to my father’s musical life. I know that I internalized the idea that he’s not as good a musician and she’s not as good at writing as those who are ‘professionals.’
I internalized it, and thirty years later my own students still recognize the cliche penned by Shaw. The American education system seems to have internalized it as well.
This is problematic. This cliche sits on the sidelines and jeers at students working on their education degrees. It sits on the tongues of business people who hire and say that ‘teaching isn’t experience,’ and it worries at the minds of kids who sit in high school and think, “Well, teaching might be cool, but it’s not as good as being a professional at something.”
It’s not considered as worthy to be an English teacher as it is to have your own published book or article or writing business. How many parents have told kids, “Why would you want to be a teacher? You’ll never make a good living at it. Besides, those who can, do.”
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. We internalize these words, and we hear them enough as joke and cliche that they become reality. We believe them. The result becomes that the teaching profession might be a noble endeavor, but it’s not much to aspire to, and kids thinking about careers fall back on the cliche to help make their choices about their future.
This is how we set up a system where the teachers are not trusted. If they could, they’d be doing.
Instead, they’re teaching.