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

When I was younger and trying to decide on a profession, I remember people’s remarks about teachers.  “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  These belittling phrases made me feel that teaching was a profession that should be left to those who had no ability to actually make something of themselves.

However, when I could not deny it any longer, I decided to face the fact that I loved literature and what I knew was how to discuss and analyze books.  Because Merrill Lynch and Key Bank do not offer careers in character analysis, I had to come to terms with the fact that people who said such disparaging comments did not understand passion.  At 27, I went back to school and earned a Masters of Education so that I could teach.

The first few years were challenging.  Sometimes, I would only be a couple of chapters ahead of my students.  I would read critics, analyze sentence structure, and delve into the characters, making them my friends.  Every day, I passionately delivered a lesson, discussed nuances with my students, and made them see that literature parallels life, and that we can all learn from the characters and plots in books.  My love of literature was alive, and I was happy.

Then, somewhere around 2002, No Child Left Behind came into play, and high stakes testing became the norm.  I was still able to teach my love of literature, but we were suddenly using computer programs and workbooks geared to getting kids to pass the test.  Every year, my worry shifted a little.  I went from trying to get my kids to craft creative stories to trying to get them to analyze vague test questions that always seemed to have two correct answers (even to me!).

Then, within the last few years, teachers became the enemy.  If a child was not succeeding in class, it was the teacher’s fault.   Teachers were suddenly under a microscope, and the public demanded that we prove we deserved our jobs.  I actually heard a politician in Ohio say that no one should teach for more than five years because teachers get stale.  After five years, let the new kids in and let the five-year veterans go get real jobs is what she intimated.  Personally, at five years, I had not yet hit my stride.  I still had not learned all of the techniques that would help me deliver content and get kids to want to learn.  If I was to compare this idea about teachers to doctors, surely, I would want a brain surgeon who had been performing surgery for a number of years over the one who was a novice and green behind the ears.

Then, the past few years, we have been bombarded with change.  The Core Curriculum has spread its spidery fingers and is strangling the education system in America.  Next year, there will be even more testing that will affect my job,  Each quarter there will be pre and post testing, and at the end of the year, an exam.  None of these tests are to test what the students have learned in class, they are to test student progress and whether we as teachers are effectively doing our jobs.  Of course, it is difficult to do a job when over fifteen days of the year are designed for arbitrary testing.

I am not alone when I say that being a teacher has become a profession I no longer like.  I do not have time to get jazzed about bringing oranges to class and having my students free write before we read “Against Still Life” by Margaret Atwood.  I could no longer lose a day to such a trivial, stimulating  activity.  Testing. Testing.  Testing.

I spend many days actually thinking, What else could I do?  I honestly do not think I can do this for twenty more years– not because of the kids– but because of the lack of  trust in my abilities and my professionalism.

However, just when I am at my lowest point, something happens.  I get a sign that what I do matters, that I make a difference, that no matter what any politician wants to say, I do my job well.

This message was on the end of an Honors 11 essay final.

Thank you for being an amazing teacher.  Your class was easily the highlight of my junior year, and your love of writing is inspirational.  I am so sad to not have you again as a teacher, but do expect many visits from Olivia and I.  You are one of those teachers that I would regret not staying in contact with.  I know that Olivia and I feel as though you’ve definitely made an impact on our high school experience, so thank you again for that.  Sorry for the cheesiness of this!  I hope we take an environmental club zoo trip this summer.  Have an amazing summer, and thanks again. You Da Bomb!

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.  How many of those who do get such gratification out of their jobs as I get knowing I made a difference in these girls’ lives.

Hannah and Olivia, if you read this, I expect we will stay in contact for a very long time.  You grew as readers and thinkers, and I loved getting to know you as people.


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

  1. Mrs. Huffer!
    We sat here together in bed in Costa Rica, hoping you had updated your blog since the last time we checked, two days ago. This blog surpassed any of our expectations and made for a wonderful bedtime story. Every word of it is true, you are a wonderful teacher and person and of course we will stay in touch! Thank you for everything!

  2. Oprah has it right, teaching is one of the best/hardest/most rewarding jobs. And over the years, as I’ve gotten older, more and more of me wishes I had gone into teaching. I love school. I loved learning. I loved the atmosphere. And I think teachers make all the difference in the world. They help mold us and we often develop into who we are because of great teachers. Mucho kudos to you.
    (And I’m not even going to comment on how “..but do expect many visits from Olivia and I” should actually read “olivia and me.”)……….

  3. Cheryl … as I read this I was so frustrated for you. When I got to the part where you started to question you love of the profession, it saddened me A LOT.

    It does seem strange that nowadays, I see my daughter being taught to take and pass tests. They give her make up chances beyond belief. And the thing is? I KNOW it is not the teachers fault. I KNOW this style of teaching … to get ‘results’ … is the wrong results. (At least in my eyes.)

    Why so many parents (and feckin politicians) feel the need to but the onus squarely on teachers is baffling to me. I know I am not the best parent. I know schools and teachers can be better. I know that kids themselves have to give a damn. But at the moment, it does seem to me to be a bit one-sided in how is taking a hit. I believe those in the education field are under fire. And you have my sympathy on that.

    Still … when I reached the end of your story it made me smile. I saw the teacher again. The real teacher. And that is a good thing. You are a good thing.


    • It’s a love/hate relationship for me. I love what I do, I hate the bureaucratic BS that it has turned into. The results are not really going to be known for twenty years, when the students of today are the workers of tomorrow– do you remember whole language learning. The concept was that phonics was just a bunch of hard rules to memorize and kids could learn just by seeing words– we suddenly had millions of Americans who could not spell and suddenly phonics seemed important again.

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