"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." What a stupid phrase. Many of those who can, can't teach, most of those who teach, can also do, and, if you think about it, to teach is to do, albeit doing of a different sort than what many of those who can do do.
I learned to respect teaching the hard way, by doing it.
I'd always wanted to give teaching a try so, when a professor asked me to be a teaching assistant for his large introductory lecture course, I jumped at the opportunity.
I figured I was a natural for teaching. I'd been a student for 18 years, and was ready to reverse roles and right the pedagogical wrongs others had inflicted on me. I was very interested in the subject of the class, and looked forward to hours of intense discussion with students eager to soak up my knowledge. I enjoy public speaking, and for a public speaker what could be more gratifying than a captive audience whose futures depend on your every word? I was seriously considering the academic life, and viewed this opportunity as a dress rehearsal. I was dirt poor, and counted on the stipend to keep me in saltines and peanut butter for another semester.
The TA job required me to reinforce the professor's teachings by summarizing each lecture at our weekly sessions, to explain the professor's teachings by answering questions at those sessions and during office hours, and to torture the students by designing weekly writing assignments.
At our first session, I spent 20 minutes going over the subject of the lecture, opened the floor to questions, and spent the next 40 minutes answering questions about the grading system, the syllabus, the first writing assignment, the exam. Not one question addressed the subject of the lecture.
The first writing assignment required the students to apply a simple concept covered in the first lecture to a mildly complicated situation. One paper was truly outstanding, some were okay and the rest were truly awful. Few of the students understood the concept, fewer still could apply it, and with one exception none could write their way out of a paper bag. Facing an entire semester of struggling through these weakly writing assignments, I was imbued with an urgent sense of mission to help them improve their writing and analysis skills. I spent hours filling the papers with comments and suggestions.
My students didn't take it well. Most lined up outside my cubicle-sized office, disputing my grades and dismissing my comments and suggestions, even threatening to go over my head to the professor. I spent almost as much discussing these papers as I did grading them.
And it was all to no avail. Week after week, most of the students continued to turn in indifferent writing and weak analysis. A few managed to improve, but most never seemed to get it, no matter how much time I spent with them or how hard they tried, although I suspect after a while many gave up trying.
Meanwhile, as the low grades piled up, the tension in our little seminar room tightened. My weekly discussions were received with frosty silence, malevolent glares and outright hostility. I had become the Grim Grader, meting out C's and D's to kids who'd always received A's and B's, the very personification of their deepest, darkest grade grubbing fears, a blot on their resumes, the obstacle to their future happiness and success.
Then one of my students killed herself.
She had been one of my most dogged opponents, a vocal leader of the insurrection, one of those who questioned every comment and suggestion, contested every grade. And now she was dead.
When someone kills herself, the first question you ask is "why?" We need to explain to the unexplainable. Like everyone, I wondered why, but unlike everyone, I didn't know. Everyone else knew why she killed herself. She did it because of me.
I heard it in whispers in the corridors, I saw it in people pointing at me, glancing away when I turned towards them. Friends kept me informed, sharing the painful details as the story worsened, my involvement growing deeper by the day. I heard I was an unfeeling monster, a grading demon, gleefully puncturing my students' self-esteem with barbed comments and pointed suggestions. And after a few days absorbing this kind of talk, I started to feel it. I lost my appetite and clumps of my hair, my stomach bled and I often trembled. A dark cloud followed me wherever I went, blotting the sun from my life.
During those dark days, I reviewed the semester over and over again in my mind, trying to figure out where I went wrong, what I could have done differently. I reread my comments to her papers, wondering which one set her off. I interviewed my few remaining students, grasping for any insight into my pedagogical flaws.
All this taught me a lot about my teaching, and much of it wasn't good. I did not instill an interest in the subject, assuming the students would find it as interesting as I did. I was blinded by their inability to work at my level, failing to acknowledge many of the little improvements in their work. I connected only with the best students, incapable of seeing my class through the eyes of my poorer students. I took it personally when my students failed, and they knew it. I ignored their concerns, assuming I knew what was best. In short, I expected them to be just like me, and they weren't and would never be.
After a few weeks the news trickled out that her husband had left her a few days before the suicide and that she'd married him against the wishes of her parents and that they'd disowned her and so on, a troubled tale of a troubled young life having nothing to do with her classroom experiences. The whispering stopped, my appetite and most of my hair eventually returned, my stomach healed and my tremors steadied.
And I listened to what I'd learned, I changed my methods, I started to really teach, I began to appreciate how difficult it is, I discovered I have no talent for it and, as I saw myself flailing and ultimately failing at something I once thought I'd been good at, I began to loathe my weekly teaching sessions almost as much as my students did. I vowed to find something else to do with my life, thankful that I figured this out before I'd inflicted further damage.
And that is why the phrase "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" is so stupid, for in denying that teaching is doing it leads idiots like myself to think anyone who can do can teach without giving any thought to the reality that teaching is doing of a different sort.