“Those who can’t, teach.” Ever hear this?

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Wed, 11/29/2017 - 14:39

I was watching a movie recently where a student was arrested and accused of killing someone. The next scene showed her with one of her teachers, whom she had called instead of her attorney. The student obviously trusted the teacher, most likely because the teacher had positively impacted the student’s life. In the middle of the scene, the student’s attorney burst into the room yelling for the teacher to go away and not talk to his client. “Those who can, DO,” he yelled. “Those who can’t, TEACH!”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this epithet, and it probably won’t be the last. And in some professions, I suppose it could be true—especially in higher education, where the primary focus is information and students are held responsible for the majority of their learning. But not in Pre-K-12 classrooms.

I’m a middle school teacher of students in grades 6–8, but I wasn’t always. My passion has always been about the outdoors so I attended college with the goal of working in environmental protection. I was fortunate—when I graduated, I was able to work for the federal government in environmental protection. After Federal civil service, I became sales manager of a software company, contributing to its growth from $1 million to $10 million in sales. When I was ready for a change again, my wife asked, “Now what do you want to do?” and I replied, “Become a teacher.” And I did.

When I worked in the civil service, and in corporate world, I was treated as a professional. I had a business card, went on business lunches, and closed deals. No one in the media, and no politicians, called me a failure. Before becoming a teacher, I went to the bathroom when I needed to. I had an hour for lunch and if it took a little longer, it was not a problem—I was a professional and everyone understood I would make up the time.

Since becoming a teacher, I pee in the boy’s bathroom with my students on the way back from lunch, which is 25 minutes—including the walk to and from. I eat at the teacher’s table with 12 adults surrounded by 300 13-year olds. Since becoming a teacher, I have had elected officials mandate programs to make me a “better teacher.” I have had district offices tell me what canned reform package to use because it worked in Texas. (I am in Georgia.)

Over and over, I’ve heard critics of public education make comments like, “Only those that cannot make it in engineering, accounting, (insert virtually anything here) become teachers.” I have heard people say that teachers choose the profession so they can have summers off. More times than I care to count, I’ve heard people I know have never stood in front of a classroom of students aged 4 to 18, say, “How hard can it be?”

As one who came to teaching late, who succeeded in the public sector and the corporate world, I can say without reservation that if you chose to teach because you couldn’t make it in other jobs or just wanted a “cushy” job with summers off, you’re either miserable or no longer teaching.

In the early 2000's, when there was a teacher shortage, I met several people who wanted to become teachers through “alternative certification” methods. They were professionals from the sciences, the military, and the corporate arena who wanted to become teachers after working in their fields—all without going through a college teacher preparation program. In my state, they had four weeks of training over the summer, then started the school year, agreeing to attend evening and weekend classes throughout the year.

I remember talking to one woman who was a biologist and wanted to teach children science. As we prepared for the first day of school, she tried to impress me and our fellow teachers by telling us how much biology she knew and how the kids were going to learn from her. I sensed none of the passion nor an understanding of children as we talked. In retrospect, I guess she thought the kids would be in awe of her expertise, but after five days of pre-planning and just three days of kids in the classroom, she walked out and never returned. Kids know when teachers know their stuff but they also know when they care about them, want to know them, and love them. I confess that I never loved any of the people I sold computer services to, but I can honestly say that I love my “customers” now.

It has now been more than two decades since I became a teacher. I look back with few regrets. Although I took a significant pay cut when I became a teacher, I realized that there is more to life than just making money. It took me until my late thirties, with a lovely wife, three daughters, and a sales job I did not enjoy, to choose the profession I am called to. In some ways, I am jealous of those who chose to become teachers out of high school because they figured it out much earlier than me.

Teachers choose teaching because they have a calling to make a difference in the lives of children. Inherent in them is an altruistic need to help others that is not driven by money or status unless the money they make isn’t enough to survive on themselves. Constantly demeaned and criticized by elected officials, by the media, parents, and often the general public, they keep coming to school every morning and working late into the night grading papers, sometimes at the expense of their own family lives.

In order to be successful, a teacher must have an understanding of how we learn and what healthy development involves—and patience like no other profession.

An assistant principal once told my wife that teachers must be able to forgive. His point was that there are days a child will drive you crazy and make you angrier than ever before. But the next day when that child comes through the doors, there can be no grudges and no revenge, no attempts to get the child “fired,” as in the workplace.
Because we know we are second only to parents in influencing our students’ success, we know that one part of the job is to do the best to help a child grow up, to meet the non-academic challenges of the world they will inhabit with the skills to navigate those challenges as well.

Teaching is part art, part science. Where there are certain parts of the profession that can be indirectly measured, it cannot be reduced to a cookbook approach. The approaches of science, as in life sciences and psychology cannot be applied here. Why? As I’ve said to so many people, ‘kids are not widgets that can be processed, poured knowledge into, and expected to come off the assembly line 12 years later, smarter and ready to go to college or work.’

Teaching is an art. Yes, we need to learn the general mechanics, fundamentals, and skills required to help children learn, but every child and classroom is different. So is every teacher. There are no formulas or models or “best ways” to teach that apply to all students.

Teachers must take everything they have learned and apply it in their own unique situations, unique classrooms, unique schools, unique parent interactions, and unique local communities. Our masterpieces are our students—some we paint with oils, some water, some acrylics.

You do not become a teacher because you could not succeed in any other profession. You become a teacher because you love children. You want to make a difference in children’s lives. Take it from me as one who has did something else first. Those who CAN, teach.

By Tim Mullen, PhD

Teacher and author of “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” (www.teachertimmullen.com)