On Being a Teacher

January 22, 2009 · 1 comment

“Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.  Those who can’t teach, criticize.”

This is a concept I remember learning at an early age – the first 2/3, at least.  I can’t remember who said it or how it was said, but I can tell you that the impression it had on me was this:  The only ones qualified to teach are the first of the three – those “who can”.  Anyone else attempting to teach is a poseur.

Now, before I go on and the career-teachers (those who always wanted to be a teacher when they grew up, and now are both grown-up and teachers*) who are reading this start to get offended, let me begin by stating that the following is merely an insight into what goes on in my brain and how it affects me and my behavior.  I am in no way, shape, or form attempting judgment of career-teachers – if anything, I’m often jealous of anyone who’s always known what they want to be when they grow up.

So.  To me, the above statement meant that until I succeeded at life (or something in particular), I was not qualified to teach anything

My parents moved our family to a different town when I was 8 so that my brother, sister, and I would have the opportunities afforded by a better school system that the one in the town in which we were living.  The school my brother and I were attending said that I was “gifted” and that they frankly didn’t have the resources to keep up with me and that my brother was also exceptionally smart, but they couldn’t figure out how to teach him properly.  God only knows what they thought of our sister.

The school system we transferred to was excellent.  My teachers seemed to know everything about the subject they taught – there wasn’t a question they couldn’t answer or a page in the book(s) they didn’t know backwards and forwards.  Their expertise in the subject matter was baffling and served to reinforce my burgeoning idealism (which is a whole ‘nother post in itself).  The concept of the omniscient teacher was planted in my brain early on.

It wasn’t until college that I started to get a glimpse of the fact that teachers are people, too.  Again, more in a later post:  cops, politicians – authority figures in general are people too.  I distinctly remember sitting in a 100-level biology class and asking the professor whether a calico cat’s skin was different colors (under the different color fur) in the same manner that a panda’s skin is pink and black under it’s white and brown skin.  The teacher’s response was “I don’t know, I’ve never shaved a cat”.  This got a big laugh from the class and made me feel pretty stupid.  After the blood left my face and circulated back to my brain, I realized that he didn’t know the answer to my question

Later on, in law school this time, I encountered a professor who also didn’t know the answers to my questions.  And I was prepared for him.  I studied the sh*t out of Property Law, knew the book backwards and forwards and embarrassed that professor in front of the class every chance I got.  I had my classmates rolling daily.  I got a C- in that class (my lowest grade in law school). 

Was it worth it?  Absolutely.  Not because I had the opportunity to humiliate this poor man, but because I learned something from the experience.  Besides the fact that I was the one my classmates asked questions of after class, I also learned that bucking authority doesn’t really get me anywhere (anywhere positive, that is).  Yes, another leak in the dam of my idealism.

The best teachers I had in law school were the professors who had actually practiced law, not the academics.  Law school is very much about the manipulation of hypothetical situations to draw a kind of pointillistic picture of a legal concept or principle of law – keep changing facts one at a time until the case comes out a different way.  I went to a decent law school, so most of my classmates were of above-average intelligence, which meant that we were pretty good at hypothesizing. 

The academics went right along with us and hypothesized until things got pretty fuzzy – like when one gets too close to the pointillistic picture:  it’s just a bunch of dots, not a sailboat anymore. 

The professors who actually practiced law, however, would smack us in the back of the head as soon as we started to get too close to the picture.  “That would never happen” was my favorite thing to hear in law school.  It meant that someone was getting way too hypothetical and not paying attention to the subject matter at hand.  (Early on in those years, that someone was me, as often as not.)  It also meant that the professor knew what he or she was talking about.

Again, more support (in my mind) for the belief that teachers should have real experience (if not some degree of success as well) with the subject they’re teaching.

So, yes, “The Teacher” is an ideal in my mind that I’d like to reach someday.  I’d like to be able to feel qualified (by experience and success) to teach something, and be worthy of the respect and awe I’ve felt for my teachers along the line.  Does that mean that’s what I’d like to be when “I’m grown up”?  Maybe.

What am I qualified to teach right now?  Maybe hit that button up top that says “RSS” on it and I’ll tell you tomorrow…


*Note to self:  after learning CSS and XHTML, write footnote code for WordPress (or just google it later).

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tom January 22, 2009 at 15:11

Knowing subject matter well enough to teach it is one thing, actually teaching it to other, dumber humans is something else. Whenever I am put in the situation to teach something to someone, it usually ends up with me getting exceedingly frustrated and angry. Just as my wife! But maybe that just means I don’t know the subject matter well enough to explain it properly.


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