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"Those that Can't Do, Teach"??

I should have put this video in my last post instead of "Teach your Children," which goes well with this post. It's an amazing band of kids called "The Homemade Jamz Blues Band." A link to the album can be found on my Music Recommendations list on the right.

“Those who can’t do, teach.” Statements like this have annoyed teachers (like me) for generations. It is based on some flawed but understandable assumptions. For many people, teaching is not a distinct activity that requires the mastery of certain skills and techniques. Teachers just talk about stuff, give out assignments, and show some videos. Since anyone can do these things, the teaching “profession” is supposedly filled with people of mediocre talent and skill who are apparently unable to do something more tangible.

So where does this perception come from? To a certain degree, it is the nature of the profession. It is difficult, after all, to accurately measure the performance of a teacher. This is not the case with many other occupations. If a civil engineer, mechanic, or stockbroker does his or her job poorly, it can result in crumbling bridges, dysfunctional automobiles, and heavy losses for investors. If a teacher does a lousy job, students still might receive a passing grade. It is difficult to measure the academic “damage” that has been done by the teacher’s poor performance. So when people say that anyone can teach, what they are really saying is that anyone can teach badly.

One of the central issues debated in education today is the question of teacher accountability. President Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have both expressed support for the idea of tying teacher evaluations to student performance. This would be a first step toward measures that could give school districts more power to get rid of teachers who are not performing. Teacher’s Unions, concerned about the job security of their members, have expressed hostility to this idea. To a certain degree, I can understand their complaints. If teachers are judged by their students’ standardized test scores, there will be pressure to train students to be skilled standardized test takers. Are high test scores necessarily evidence that effective teaching and real learning has occurred? Also, student test scores are somewhat out of the teacher’s control. Should a teacher be penalized for having a “bad crop of kids”? On the other hand, resistance to teacher accountability standards can further weaken the profession. If teachers want the respect (and higher pay) that they feel they deserve, they need to be held to some type of a measurable standard. Guaranteed job security can promote mediocrity, and it gives credence to the phrase “those who can’t do, teach.”

The perception that teaching is easy is also the result of a teacher’s unique work schedule. After all, teachers only work for about eight months of the year, and the school day typically ends at about 3:00. This creates the impression that people take these “easy,” low-paying jobs rather than doing some “real work.” Community College teachers like myself seem to have it particularly easy. If a college professor teaches about five or six classes per semester, then he or she is working about 20 hours per week. Plus, we still get all of that vacation time, we don’t have to worry about decorating classrooms, and we don’t have to stress out over discipline problems. This job is cake!

 There are a couple of problems with this perception that teaching at any level is easy. A teacher’s workload cannot simply be measured by the hours spent in front of a classroom. The time spent grading papers, creating productive activities, increasing one’s knowledge of the course material, and interacting with students and/or parents after class hours is not included in simplistic calculations of a teacher’s work hours. Also, during those official class hours, a teacher must always be in performance mode. We can rarely relax (as people on 9-5 schedules may have opportunities to do.) Yes, there are times where we can pop on a video or hand out an assignment, although even these activities require a certain amount of monitoring. Most of the time, however, is spent communicating with students either through lectures, the facilitation of activities, or one-on-one instruction. Anyone who has ever done these things for an extended length of time knows how exhausting it can be. I generally love performing in front of a class, but there are days when I am just not feeling it. I do not have the option, however, of mailing it in for an hour or two (or three). I need to kick myself in the butt and find the energy and enthusiasm to keep students interested and awake. If students pick up on any lack of energy on my part, it will not be a productive day.

Teaching well requires skill, energy, passion, and a certain amount of intuitive talent. Of course, if someone without these qualities slacks off and just hands out worksheets and shows movies, then the job is a piece of cake. Of course, it’s also true that any job is easy to do poorly.


  1. In October, I wrote a post about how even teachers have misguided perceptions of one another:

    And if we can't appreciate how hard we all work, then how do outsiders view us?

    I read, Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, and he wrested with being an English teacher who hadn't been published, so he waited until he retired. Angela's Ashes was the result. So he could "do", but he decided to "do" teaching first.

    Your post makes a good case as to why public education teachers are used as the scapegoats when they don't even get to make the rules.

  2. Hey. I noticed my comment didn't show and I just wanted to stop by and apologize if it was offensive. I wasn't upset. Unfortunately, it's hard to transfer tone. Maybe it was irrelevant. I read and comment all hours of the night when I'm at work. I read sometimes at home when I can't flip my schedule. Anyway, loved this post.

  3. Jen, I don't know which comment you are referring to. I have yet to reject anyone's comments for being offensive. You may have forgotten to type in that confirmation word or something. Now I'm curious to know what you said.

  4. Oh man! I don't remember everything I wrote, but one thing I do remember writing at the end of my comment was something like, "Forget what teachers can or cannot do outside of the classroom; how are we going to prepare these students for life and/or higher education!?" I said that not to belittle your thoughts, but to bring to light something else that I've been thinking about a lot lately.

    You just never know how people are going to take things. Thanks for letting me know that I didn't offend you. I really enjoy bouncing ideas around, but I can't do that with people if I offend.

    BTW I consider it to be a great compliment that you hit that follow button! Thanks so much.

  5. Hi Paul, I agree. I work in the field of Early Childhood Education and often times we are viewed as babysitters.
    Over the past 2 decades I have witnessed some very alarming changes in family dynamics and even with the economy.
    I am in no way passing the buck here, but just giving some insight on some things I've seen....
    Many families are in turmoil and children often suffer for it. We get them young and see the issue right away.
    I already know the family is the child's first teacher.....
    By the time we get the families and kids help we are moving on to teachers like Theresa-she has a good heart and the patience for these kids. But we can't get all of them...
    In my opinion, it's easy to blame us teachers. I'm not saying it's right-Look at what happened in Rhode Island.
    It's easier to blame us than possibly why kids come to school with low impulse control or unhealthy in the first place. (All situations not conducive to good learning).
    I don't take it personally-and I know it's not ALL teachers...this is Americas problem because this is our future generation.

  6. Barbara, keep up the good fight. Your job is much tougher and probably more important than mine.


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