Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can’t, Teach

Nope.

First, many of those who can do also can teach. Take a look at the greatest scientists over the past centuries; they did and they taught. Same is true of writers, artists, along with men and women in other areas of expertise.

Now, yes, there are plenty of teachers whose greatness lies in their ability to teach. Most English teachers are not going to become published or famous writers. Most history teachers will probably not be Doris Kearns Goodwin or Will Durant. So what? If these teachers can get across ideas and teach needed skills, they are doing a great service for society.

We are the first (or one of the first) societies that has tried to teach everyone. That is some goal and, sadly, I do not think we will ever really reach it—at least in my lifetime. Still, good intentions count.

I do enjoy the non-teachers who fancy themselves successful in this or that field leaping on the bandwagon that subscribes to the title to this article. Some of these folks shout it out at the top of their lungs.

Here is a fact: It is a bitch to be a teacher. In my limited experience of 33 years in one district, about 25 percent of the teachers were extraordinary; maybe 50 percent were good or competent and another 25 percent should have been marched out in the dead of night, never to return.

For most teachers, kids—even the smart ones—are tough to handle. They are, to put it simply, sharks; swimming in circles waiting for the teacher’s blood. If the teacher drips even a little of the red stuff, the feeding frenzy begins.

Teachers in the bottom 25 percent send an amazingly high number of disciplinary referrals to the principal or dean of students. Trying to get the higher-ups to pull your bloody body out of the water after a kid-attack is way too little, way too late. The great teachers send few (or no) referrals because they can handle the sharks on their own.

I remember one teacher who sent so many referrals that the dean had two piles; one pile for every teacher in the school and one just for this lady. Her pile was more than the combined number for all other teachers put together.

She was a nice lady in the teachers’ lounge, maybe in her mid-50s, although she had a wandering eye that made it difficult to figure out where she was looking.

The kids hated her and she hated them right back. The bad kids hated her. The good kids hated here. She taught business and typing. Her classes had few kids, maybe 10 to 15 students at the time when the average class size was 25 to 30.

The kids lined up to get out of her classes and the parents with the most clout were able to twist the arms of the administrators to free their children from the iron grip of the Cyclops, as the kids called her.

Here is my personal story with her.

It was June, the last week of school, and in New York State students had to take the Regents exams in all the main subjects. These were statewide exams that, if passed, meant you received a Regents diploma. That was a big deal.

My 11th grade classes had to take the exam. Two of these classes were my honors Classics classes as well. These were nice kids; smart kids; well-behaved kids.

I went up to the room on the third floor to say hello and take attendance. There was the Cyclops sitting at the desk, her eyes looking wherever the hell they were looking.

Not a single kid was in the room!

“Where are the students? Did the room change?” I asked.

“They were disobedient and had to be sent to the dean’s office to be punished,” she said.

Oh, crap! An entire honors class? During a Regents exam!

“Ah,” I said. “Ah” is my go-to expression when I have no idea what the hell I should say.

I left the room and zipped down to the dean’s office. There they were, 25 honors students sitting in the three different offices. Some of them looked worried that they might miss their Regents English exam.

I told the dean, “You know who sent all of them down here? I’ll take them.”

“Could you take her too?” he asked.

I led the kids back upstairs but first I told them to apologize to the Cyclops, but I used her formal name. “We need her to let up.” The kids apologized as they entered the room.

She huffed a bit but she didn’t throw herself in front of the door to prevent them from coming in.

“You can take a break,” I said. “I’ll administer the exam.” Some cheers went up from the students. I gave them “the look” and the cheers stopped. She huffed and left the room.

“She’s nuts!” said some of them.

“How can they let her teach?” said others.

“Okay, sit down. She’s been teaching a long time,” I said. “We should have some respect for the service she’s put in over the decades.” I looked at them. They looked at me.

“She should be shot,” said one of them.

“You know,” I said. “We aren’t allowed to bring guns to the school.”

That was that.

She didn’t come back the next year. The school district paid her $55,000 to retire, a princely sum in the mid-1970s for the queen of mean. In short, they paid her off to get rid of her. A good teacher never gets paid off. You retire and get your retirement, but you don’t get a bonus for being good.

I found some ridiculous aspects to my teaching career. If there were students that a teacher couldn’t control, the knee-jerk administrative reaction was, “Put him (or her) in Scobe’s class.” I’d have 30-35 kids in my non-Regents classes while other English teachers would have 15 to 20. I didn’t get paid any more money.

And hallway monitoring. The men were expected to break up the fights but we didn’t get paid any more money. Only a couple of the women teachers would actually get their hands dirty trying to stop two enraged students from pummeling each other to death. One teacher, a classy woman, would always say she didn’t want to jump in because she didn’t want her high heels to get dirty or break.

But, back to the topic: Are people who think that teaching is for those who “can’t do” actually able to teach? Let’s see.

He was a marine; a big guy, who wanted to teach English after his service to his country in Vietnam. He was hired as a replacement for a pregnant teacher. He was given average classes and one non-Regents class.

One month after he started, he came over to me. “Scobe,” he said. “I can’t do it. I am always losing my temper. At first that scared them; now they hoot and holler at me. I can’t scare them anymore. I’m miserable.”

He quit the next week.

Another was a businessman who had retired to a life of luxury. He thought teaching would be a “breeze.” His children had gone to our schools and he was very critical about most of our teachers.

He made a pronouncement that he would become a teacher and show the rest of us how easy it was. He bragged to the students about how much money he had. They were not impressed; many came from wealthy families. The ones who didn’t come from wealthy families disliked him for his superiority.

Within a week the man was torn to shreds. He was constantly writing disciplinary referrals. It looked as if he was going to give the Cyclops a run for her money.

He loudly claimed in the teachers’ lounge that the principal had given him the toughest kids because of his former criticism of our school district. Not so. He just had regular kids; none with serious problems. He just couldn’t handle them.

Some teachers can control their classes. How they do so is probably a mystery. We had several excellent women teachers who were under five-feet tall. One was an extremely skinny older woman with the most irritating, whiney voice on earth. The kids sat at attention in her class. She rarely needed to send a referral.

We had excellent teachers who were fat; who were giants; who were just plain-looking men and women—and they could teach up a storm.

We had excellent teachers who were funny and the kids loved them. We had excellent teachers who were the exact opposite. Nasty bastards; some of whom I couldn’t stand—all whom could teach and their students learned.

There is no common denominator to explain all their successes.

Yes, there are those who can do. And there are those who can do and teach. And there are those who can simply teach. Teaching is more than enough.

Then there are the ones who spout a disdainful cliché about doing vs. teaching, the ones who would be chopped up in front of a classroom.

Frank Scoblete’s books are available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, e-books, libraries and at bookstores.

10 thoughts on “Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can’t, Teach”

  1. I always felt teachers worth their salt should be paid like lefty pitchers in MLB! Like any profession or trade we have good and God awful but often the good ones get the shaft.
    Good article and because of teachers I can enjoy reading it!

  2. After teaching Biology, Chemistry and Human Anatomy for 15 years until I retired after 39 years, I always told the new arriving teachers, both rookies and new to our district, that the kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care!!

  3. You are so right Frank, teaching is not an “easy” profession, that’s for sure! Thanks for the great read.

  4. I never intended to be a teacher, but when I picked up a class in grad school to make extra money, I found out I really liked it. Now I have an MFA in film production, and I make short films, and do some marketing and advertising work, but my true calling is teaching film. And I’ve been lucky to do it for over twenty years. So yes, I’m one of those people who do AND teach. Thanks for expressing it so well.

  5. My stepson had a math teacher last year that had never been challenged. He felt I should be impressed with his ineptitude because he’d been teaching for 20 or 30 years. I made him cry then made him retire mid year. Teachers today are like the educators I had and I will always remember the greats: Scobe, Mr. O’Neill, Dr. Pachter, Coach Klein, Dr. Sullivan, Mr. Seyfert, Mr. Keuhl (can’t recall if he was also a PhD), Mrs. Webber, Mrs. Taylor. I remember the mediocre ones and the bad ones too…I remember the [insert explicative] that kicked me out of class for looking like a WASP and the guidance counselor that felt I wouldn’t amount to anything (here’s looking at you Diane). Sadly, so many outstanding teachers left, retired or passed away. Teaching is hard and thankless but the best educators leave a lifelong mark.

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