Why Do Teachers Teach?
George Bernard Shaw offered the most damning argument against teachers and the profession of teaching. In Man and Superman (1903), the Irish playwright declared through his protagonist: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”
Comedian Woody Allen clarified the idea further for us: “Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”
A snider version is available on the Internet (author unknown): “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.”
Is there any truth to these prickly sayings? Does the teaching profession attract only those who have failed at everything else?
Of course not. Teaching is a calling just like physics, literature, law, music or mathematics. In countries like Finland and South Korea, teachers are revered. They are considered the pillars of society. Their earnings reflect their standing and status.
It is a different story in the United States. Whether in income or status, teachers are, on the whole, at the bottom of the heap. Politicians pay lip service to the importance of teachers in shaping minds and then dutifully kowtow to the demands of Big Business and Wall Street honchos. Colleges and Universities are now run by CEOs who cut their teeth running corporations (often running them to the ground) and who, in cahoots with the textbook industry, see no distinction between an educational institution and a company selling, say, toothpaste. It’s all about market, free enterprise and academic capitalism, their argument goes. Besides, isn’t education a dream of a product to sell to stressed customers, that is, students, who, for them, are the perennial cash cows?
Compounding this problem is the rise in the number of part-time (adjunct) teachers. Currently, over 75% of college professors in the United States are adjunct. The dictionary defines ‘adjunct’ as ‘a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.’ And that’s exactly how adjuncts are treated: ‘things’ that earn minimum wage salary if you count all the hours they have to toil without pay (grading, counseling, and so on, without any office space) and of course, without any medical benefit or security. Yet they teach the bulk of the courses in our colleges and universities, saving untold millions that mostly go into building expensive gyms and cafeterias and hiring yet more administrators.
So why do teachers teach, even as adjuncts? Has this breed completely lost its sense of self-respect, its dignity?
The truth is more complicated. There are bad teachers, good teachers and a few great teachers, just like in any other profession. But whereas a middling cubicle-dweller at a high-flying startup can earn in his first year fifty times the salary of a teacher who has been toiling at his craft for over a decade, there is a crucial difference. A teacher, full-time or part-time, is the master of his domain, that is, of his class. She is the one who decides what will be taught, how it will be taught, and how her charges will be graded. Yes, there have been major shifts in pedagogy: the importance of student-centered learning, about teachers being “not sage on the stage but guide on the side,” about ‘it’s not what we teach, it’s what they learn.” Still, even if a teacher is not the sage on the stage, she still commands the most attention in her class as a guide. Whether she wants to or not, she is still her class’s focal point. Given her dismal financial status and her utter anonymity outside the classroom, this ‘looking up to’ feeling, this temporary sense of indispensability, when combined with the passion for shaping minds, can be priceless.
Yet this same feeling can undermine a teacher’s noble intentions. As Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bazar point out in their book, Methods That Matter, “Teachers probably wouldn't have originally chosen their vocation if they didn't crave the spotlight on some deep psychological level. The hunger to 'really teach something' has probably derailed more student-centered innovations than administrative cowardice and textbook company co-option combined.”
Why do teachers teach? Other than a few academic superstars and Nobel laureates, teaching cannot surely be about money in America, since the pay is, relatively speaking, so little. Even with passion and nebulous talks about life’s calling, there are teachers who destroy the curiosity and the motivations of their students through mindless drill and uninspiring style. But there are also teachers who try to do their best by their students, day in and day out. There is something ineffable about their ways and methods, some x factor that cannot be reduced to algorithmic analysis. It is important for these teachers, however, to acknowledge the lure of the spotlight ‘at some deep psychological level.’ As long as they maintain the proper perspective about it and focus on what their students are learning, rather than what they are teaching, teaching will continue to be its own reward.
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Hasan Z Rahim
Hasan Z. Rahim is a professor of mathematics and statistics at San Jose City College,
located in the heart of Silicon Valley, California.