12 March 2010

Old aphorisms never die ... they just get in the way

About a week ago, a post on the ever thoughtful TTMF started with the working title "An old aphorism falls away". The aphorism is a well known one: “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; and those who can't teach, teach teachers”. The point of the post was (as the working title suggests) to recognise that the aphorism may not be true.

Since that TTMF post, I've had a discussion with someone I profoundly admire, and deeply respect, and greatly like, but with whom I could not agree. We were debating the appointment of a teacher to work with vulnerable young students – who need the very best if the education system is to pull back from the brink of failing them. He wanted to appoint a candidate whose command of subject knowledge is extensive and sure – but whose ability as a teacher has shallower foundations. I wanted to appoint one whose subject knowledge is (I freely admit) more limited, but whose talents and passion as a teacher are a wondrous joy to behold. I'm not (and could never be) a great teacher myself; but I do recognise one when I see one.

I firmly maintain that the aphorism was never true ... though I know why it exists. When I was at school, there were too many poor teachers and too few good ones; that was in a world emerging from war and only beginning the struggle to rebuild civil society. There are, of course, some bad ones still (though they are a minority), and there can never be enough good ones. But the aphorism ignores the fact that teaching, like anything else, is a skill and a gift ... and an avocation. An outstanding teacher is like an outstanding engineer, or an outstanding doctor, or an outstanding chemist: one whose abilities are precious and not to be wasted. A good or poor teacher can make or ruin lives just as much as a good or poor doctor.

Those who can, should be encouraged to do. Those who can teach should be encouraged to teach – they are not two a penny, and we desperately need them. And those who can teach teachers – yes, they should be encouraged to teach teachers, too. If teaching well is a precious skill, then so (clearly) is teaching how to teach; how can we get the best teachers, unless we give them the best in their turn?

I said, above, that “the aphorism was never true”. But aphorisms do not, in general, point towards truths; they point towards beliefs. In this case, the aphorism says nothing at all about teachers or teaching; but it says a very great deal about the society which believes it. A society which quotes that aphorism is saying “we don't greatly value education, so we don't really care whether teachers can teach well; anybody will do”.

1 comment:

Dr. C said...

Might not aphorisms be more for the cynic in us all? This one is almost the same as we heard in medical school: "See one, do one, teach one" (i.e. anything from drawing blood, to doing a cesarean section.) Unfortunately it is sometimes true. But in a non cynical world, your doctor would be well trained. Actually, it is easier to be a doctor than a teacher, especially a pathologist or anesthesiologist. As you so rightly point out, your candidate has talent and passion as a teacher, which I assume to be his/her ability to motivate students to learn (which they do themselves and has little to do with the quantity of knowledge possessed by the teacher.)