Recently, a friend trotted out the old adage, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” This quote bothers me. I understand the frustration behind it, but my experience suggests otherwise.
Everyone has had good teachers and bad teachers, just like everyone has had good doctors and bad doctors, good mechanics and bad mechanics, and good hairdressers and bad hairdressers. If I said to you, “I know how to use scissors and I’ve had plenty of good haircuts and bad haircuts, so I know the difference,” would you let me cut your hair? Or, in the same vein as the above adage, would you hire me to teach in your school of cosmetology?
Content knowledge is important, and teachers who do not understand their content are usually ineffective. However, teachers also need to be able to teach the content and skills, often to reluctant learners who lack some of the prerequisite skills and need significant scaffolding. This doesn’t just require thorough knowledge of the content itself. It also requires a thorough understanding of the deeper content beyond what is actually being taught, understanding of the tangential content surrounding it in every direction, and understanding of how the knowledge and skills need to build on one another, in order for students to be able to fully understand the content and build on it in the future.
Teachers also need to manage the classroom environment. Most students, left to decide for themselves, would not choose to learn what teachers are tasked with teaching them. Students can be reluctant learners for a variety of reasons. Often there are nonacademic issues, such as poverty or challenges in their home lives. Sometimes students’ prerequisite knowledge is weak (or nonexistent) and needs to be scaffolded. (Many of these students act out rather than looking stupid in front of their classmates.) Usually there are a handful of students who are a handful—students who need a certain amount of daily one-on-one attention from the teacher in order to be able to get through a class without disrupting it. (We can’t let these kids disrupt our classes, but we can’t just kick them out and deprive them of their education either.)
In the early 2000s, there was a huge push in education to recruit career-changers from high tech to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering) classes. The fear that drove this push was the bogeyman of the teacher with insufficient content knowledge. The result, however, was a huge influx of career-changers who could do, but couldn’t teach. In classrooms around the country, there were countless displaced scientists and engineers who had no idea what to do with the children in front of them. The classrooms of these career-changers looked like the stereotypical bad teacher in a sitcom. They lectured and lectured and lectured, with little or no discussion, demonstrations or hands-on activities. They repeated the same ineffective explanations over and over, and threw tantrums and blamed students for not being able to learn, punishing them with impossible tests and poor grades. Some of these career-changers fled the classroom after a few months; others stuck it out for a year or two. Only the ones who had a knack for teaching (or who developed one quickly) remained beyond a couple of years.
For the most part, public schools have stopped trying to bring career-changers directly into the classroom. Would-be teachers without any background in pedagogy or practical experience are seen as too risky and are steered toward pedagogy classes and a practicum (student teaching) before being given their own classrooms. However, many charter schools and organizations like Teach for America still recruit career-changers directly into the classroom. TFA gives its corps members a 5-week intensive course on classroom management. Most charter schools give their new hires a week of professional development before they start. Both types of organizations make up for their teachers’ lack of classroom experience by pushing “no excuses” classroom management, a zero-tolerance, consequence-based approach that forces compliance and conformity. Neither type of organization prepares its teachers to understand how to teach, particularly how to teach high-level skills that build on each other. In these classrooms, students learn low-level skills that are only useful for passing standardized tests. This produces high scores and the accolades that go along with them, but it also produces students who are completely unprepared for the higher-level coursework for which those classes are supposed to have been a prerequisite.
So maybe the adage should be, “Those who can, do. Some of those who can do can also teach. The rest can only produce test scores.”