I came across this gem on Facebook while I was still spluttering over the crass statement by Wayne LaPierre, the Vice-President of the NRA, that ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.’ The NRA advocates putting armed guards in every school as the way to prevent further mass shootings such as the pre-Christmas massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School at Newtown, Connecticut. (It probably also recommends keeping buckets of gasoline in the house in case of fire.)
I was delighted by the image of every potential gunshop customer being challenged at the point of sale to reflect upon, explain and justify their reasoning in deciding that they needed a gun. The teacher would, of course, only accept properly thought-through answers, would pick up on any logical inconsistencies, and would use astute questioning to guide the ‘learner’ to a proper understanding of the implications of his or her actions. Imagine the effect on sales! (Perhaps others shared this same image, which is why the share price of both Smith & Wesson and Remington plummeted.)
This set me to pondering on just how much expertise teachers bring to their profession. Inexplicably, the public view of teaching seems to be more in line with George Bernard Shaw’s jibe: ‘He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches’ or Woody Allen’s modification ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym.’
I would argue the opposite.
Teaching a concept or skill actually requires a far more profound understanding than simply using it, which is why ‘peer-teaching’ is such an effective classroom strategy. Nor does the ability to teach arise automatically from mastery of the subject – witness how the most capable students can flounder when asked to ‘peer-teach’ an item. Naturally gifted mathematicians or linguists do not necessarily make the best teachers of Maths or Languages – quite the opposite. It is often the struggle for mastery, including the analysis of the skills needed, reflection on the difficulties, and the development of strategies for overcoming them, that builds the framework of understanding of the learning process and empathy for the learner that makes for effective teaching. This can be observed very well in sports. The number of top coaches who a) did not reach the highest levels as players in their sport and b) were teachers before they became coaches is far too high to be a coincidence. In international rugby alone the list includes Graham Henry (NZ All Blacks), Declan Kidney (Ireland), Stuart Lancaster (England), Brian Ashton (England), Eddie O’Sullivan (Australia) and Bill Dickinson (Scotland). From soccer can be added Jose Mourinho (Real Madrid), Roy Hodgson (England) and Rafael Benitez (Chelsea). Dig into your own favourite sport and you will find many more. In Shaw’s words, they could not do, so they taught, and I would suggest that it was the skills they learned while qualifying and practising as teachers, combined with the insights gained by having to think about their chosen sport (rather than rely on natural genius or instinct) that enabled them to become such effective communicators and transmitters of skills.
Outstanding teachers are as rare as outstanding ‘doers’. They are also far more valuable, given the number of lives that they help shape. As Shaw and Allen might have said if they had gone for accuracy rather than wit:
Those who can teach make it possible for others to learn how to do (and that applies to gym teachers as well!)