The Folly of “Those who can’t, teach.”

This piece ran in newspapers at the end of April, 2023


There’s a famous line, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” As if “teaching” weren’t its own kind of “doing.”

That line is indicative of how our society’s regards teaching, an attitude that is actually costly to the nation – economically and otherwise.

Studies have measured the value of high quality teachers.

“A good teacher …enhances [the students’] chances to attend college, earn more money, and avoid teen pregnancy,” reads one report.

It has been shown that exceptional teachers have an impact — even on kindergartners — that can be lifelong. Evidently, students in their classrooms were changed in some ways that improved their lives even decades later.

Studies have also shown that replacing less effective teachers by more effective teachers measurably increases the students’ future income. That proves that – even calculating that “worth” only in terms of national wealth — it is foolish for a society to fail to pay teachers what they’re worth.

Some gifted teachers choose to teach, despite that requiring the financial sacrifice of foregoing better-paying jobs available to people with their abilities.

But a rational economy would make the pay of teachers high enough to attract all those potential “best teachers” whose contribution to the well-being and wealth of our society would be greater than what it costs to attract them to the profession.

One problem may be inadequate understanding.

Americans do value economic productivity and the maximization of wealth. But we apparently don’t understand well enough what goes into getting a good and wealthy society to enable us to place the proper value on the lifelong impact these “best teachers” have on the children they teach.

Another problem may be what we – as a society — value.

When we Americans do recognize the value of a really “good teacher,” we as a society can find the money to get them into the positions where they can make their contributions. Like the great football coaches, or basketball coaches—who, after all, are teachers. (They teach the members of their teams how to maximize their potential and prevail over challenges.)

In America in our times, universities and professional teams pay really big bucks to get them. No one puts them down with, “Those who can, play. Those who can’t, coach.”

While the coaches who win get paid in the millions, university professors get paid a fraction of that, while public school teachers far less still.

The coaches are highly paid because successful teaching in that athletic realm provides people in the wider society the pleasure of winning in athletic competitions. Those pleasures are more salient in our national consciousness than the lifelong pleasures from reading great literature, or thinking clearly.

But even if the beneficial effects of great teaching in the classroom are not as visceral as striving to win an NFL championship, they are something that – in our more thoughtful moments — we could contemplate as a society. We could look at evidence and devise the best strategies to maximize our social well-being through the way we hire the people to teach our children.

We as a society should learn more about what’s happening with “best teaching.” What is changing inside the child because of the way such teachers are shaping their experience over the year? How much of it is the development of the mind, how much the acquisition of tools, how much of it something at the levels of character and relationship?

Whatever happens – like in the kindergarten rooms of those teachers whose students will be measurably more successful even as adults because of their experience in kindergarten – constitutes proof that “teaching” is a profound kind of “doing.”

For now, we as a society are moving in some destructive directions. Rather than doing our best to attract the teachers who’d be worth what we’d have to pay them, we are making the teaching environment repellent to creative and dynamic teachers.

I doubt that any “best teacher” would feel OK about the “teaching to the test” that various public education systems have mandated. It’s a deadly way to educate the young, and it brings out the best in nobody. But policy has chosen to reward an educational process quite different from what learning ideally should be. Or teaching.

That “teaching to the test” approach started in more rational times. Lately, things have become worse.

Now the craziness that besets the nation politically has spilled over into the domain of education, so that our schools and teachers are being compelled to hew to some party line that is based on falsehoods:

  • Compelled not to teach much that’s real, important and true about relationships between the races in American history.
  • Compelled (e.g. in Florida schools and universities) to advance a partisan agenda.

If we want to attract the best people to teach our young, we will not only have to pay more than we do now to get them, but we’ll also have to provide teachers with the space to make the most of their virtues as teachers. Curricula dictated by thought police would repel such teachers.

It appears we will have to cure some of our current political malady before we can make the changes in our society’s longstanding relationship with teaching –“Those who can’t, teach” – into one better serves the people and the nation.

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