Teachers and Doers, or: Those Who Can Do May Also Do Teaching

Maybe you’ve heard the old saying about teachers not being competent enough to actually do the thing they’re teaching. After all, the logic goes, if someone is proficient at their craft, why would they forgo fame, acclaim, and the ability to purchase frighteningly expensive houses just to slum it as a teacher? The horror.

I don’t buy it. It makes no sense to assume that being a teacher disqualifies someone from being good at their discipline. Sure, in some instances the old adage may be true—as is the case with many clichés—but I often wonder about the folks who feel compelled to offer up this nugget of wisdom. Do they have a karmic score to settle? Did they live through some kind of terrifying formative life event with a cruel teacher? Or are they just envious of all the teachers out there leading their sexy lives and enduring universal adoration?

To be fair, we’ve all probably endured a few incompetent or tyrannical educators. In third grade, for example, I had a math teacher who came to class drunk and slept with her head on her desk nearly every day. I’m not sure what she would’ve been doing had she not been our teacher, other than sleeping.

On the plus side, that math class was a breeze and we all got top marks. The snag, of course, was that we didn’t learn any actual math. In fact, during that school year, when we should have been learning the ins and outs of multiplication tables, we spent our class time building our naughty word-speaking skills. But, hey, at least she showed up.

Then in college, there was the sociology professor who had a grand time locking the door five minutes before class began, making a show out of demanding students get to class earlier next time. And I’ll never forget the algebra instructor who seemed to be a bit too delighted at watching sobbing students labor in vain to solve equations at the blackboard.

These negative stories notwithstanding, there are also teachers who choose freely to do what they do, despite the fact that there are other better paying options. Hopefully, you’ve had at least one of the good ones, even if you weren’t aware of it. Perhaps you didn’t know that teacher could’ve just as easily been out building something impressive, running a company, solving weighty issues, saving the world, or at least a small part of it. Okay, maybe an infinitesimal part of the world, but a part nonetheless.

Also, what brilliant person decided teaching doesn’t qualify as a form of doing? It has the most important characteristics of doing: It requires time and some level of effort, and it’s done when another thing could be happening but isn’t. On top of that, if I’m teaching, it’s going to be necessary to perform the task in question. I can’t teach math if I can’t do math, and I can’t help people learn to write unless I know how to write.

So forget about the false dichotomy. Out there in the world, there’s an educator who decides on a daily basis to be where he is and not banish near-tardy students into the hallway at the top of the hour. He isn’t afraid of being upstaged by people walking into a room. And for every inebriated desk sleeper, there’s another teacher who decides to remain awake in class.

They could both be somewhere else, but they’re not. They’re in the classroom, doing teaching.