• A Step Ahead

"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

written by Jeanne


This derogatory phrase dates back to 1903 from a drama series, “Man and Superman,” written by George Bernard Shaw. I did not live back in 1903 and therefore can’t dispute Shaw’s assumption that teachers were people who lacked the technical skills and training for higher-paying skilled jobs, and therefore simply taught. But I am surprised that the idiom is still around today, especially in Western societies, where if not explicitly quoted, is reflected in the fact the teaching profession is generally undervalued. The younger the age of the students, the less respected (and paid) are those who are responsible for their care and education.


And this, despite the fact that western societies have delved more and more deeply into brain research, uncovering facts about how people learn, what motivates and sustains learning, and how best to unleash the process – which often lies in the hands of teachers and which, research tells us, is active from birth.


Teachers today not only need to have mastered subject content (e.g., history, math, as well as human development), but explored a variety of teaching philosophies and methods to best deliver the content. Teacher education is not a walk in the park, nor is a teacher’s school schedule - which is often criticized for its short hours and long breaks during the school year. For the professional teacher, there is no such thing as short hours and long breaks given the amount of planning, reporting, conferring and assessing , as well as continual education and training, is required which does not take place during actual school hours.


We have all known teachers who were as brilliant as others were dismal; as committed and passionate as others were detached and bored. The difference has as much to do with formal preparation for the role as it does with basic qualities that cannot be taught but must be freely embraced by anyone in a professional role. Chief among those qualities for teachers are:


The ability to develop relationships with students: research demonstrates that teachers who are able to create a safe, positive, and productive learning environment and to build trusting relationships have better-motivated and higher- achieving students. Teachers who are patient, accepting, who listen to their students and are able to adjust their teaching to a variety of learning styles are not only more respected by students, but have a positive effect on learning outcomes.


Knowledge of learners: beyond specific subject matter, the core of a teacher’s expertise has to “incorporate knowledge of the cognitive, social and emotional development of learners. It includes an understanding of how students learn at a given developmental level; how learning in a specific subject area typically progresses like learning progressions or trajectories; awareness that learners have individual needs and abilities; and an understanding that instruction should be tailored to meet each learner’s needs.” (https://lizfree.com/2016/09/12/those-who-can-do-those-who-cant-teach/) This kind of learning is not a one-off type of academic preparation. Most professional teachers are passionate about the subject and spend many hours following educational research.


Reflective Capabilities: while I cannot directly quote research on this, I have long held that excellent teachers, in addition to interpersonal skills, also have highly developed intra-personal skills. They are able to look inside themselves, recognize their biases and shortcomings as well as their strengths. Most importantly, they are able to recognize and accept their mistakes and learn from them. Any teacher who cannot accept that they, like all humans and professionals, make mistakes, is not capable of role-modeling how to learn from mistakes, how to solve problems and how to move forward which are key skills in life-long learning.


The Corona Virus seriously disrupted classrooms world-wide and, in many places, required teachers to re-tool, using distance learning to stay connected with their students. The best teachers were committed to making this new kind of education work as best as possible, but it was not done without enormous effort and commitment on their part.


Teaching – whether it’s preschoolers, primary, secondary or adult students – is not for the faint of heart, nor the lazy, and especially not for those who “can’t do.” William Arthur Ward once wrote

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

All the telling, explaining and demonstrating in the world cannot guarantee a motivated learner. Only a great teacher, highly skilled and passionately dedicated, can move students to learn and to keep learning. As a former educator, I had the privilege to know many such teachers and to learn from them. As a parent of grown children, I am forever grateful that my children were able to attend school and were exposed to good teachers. As a member of A Step Ahead, I have the enormous privilege to watch a dedicated teacher struggle in a slum setting to give her students the best possible instruction in English so that they might have a fighting chance as young adults.


These professionals deserve far more than a day of recognition. They deserve our continuing support and our deepest respect.

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