Those Who Can Teach

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Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

Nothing infuriates us teachers more than this saying.

The standard response to this slur on teaching was best put by Keynes who said "The ideas of economists and political philosophers…are more powerful than is commonly understood…Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." Keynes’ remark takes on even more force if we think about the impact on our world of teachers of philosophy, such as Plato and Aristotle, of science such as Newton, Darwin and Einstein, and especially, of religion. No one has influenced our world more than Moses and Jesus, who were teachers above all.

Modern politics is shaped by great teachers, too. Our principles of freedom and democracy were in large part the work of a teacher named John Locke, who is the Dallas Cowboys of political philosophy. His ideas so influenced the way we live today that he can rightly be called America's philosopher. The greatest threat to our principles, the Soviet Union, was also inspired by the work of a teacher, Karl Marx.

That great teachers and teachings shaped our way of life deserves more attention. But let me suggest another reason to honor teaching and teachers. In the contemporary economy, it is brains more than brawn and teamwork more than individual activity, that makes for productivity. It takes the skills of a great teacher to inspire the cooperative activity that leads to success in all spheres of life.

Is that a strange claim? Well, look at what makes for a great teacher.

First, love of learning. No one can be a great teacher without enthusiasm for continually learning about the world around them.

Second, teachers synthesize what they have learned. Great teachers focus our attention on what is central and put everything in its proper place.

Third, great teachers explain what they know with clarity and patience, not to mention, again and again. The art of teaching is the ability to say the same thing six different ways and with seven different examples. Teachers must be able to fit their arguments and examples to what their students know and want to know.

We think of teachers as talkers. But, fourth, great teachers are great listeners. Only by listening to their students can teachers learn how to give them what they need.

How do these skills make themselves felt outside the classroom? Consider an example of the two real estate agents my wife and I dealt with when we sold a house in Hillsborough and bought one in Charlotte four years ago.

The agent who sold our house—she will remain nameless—had none of the skills of a teacher. She never slowed down enough to hear what we were telling her, even after we tried to correct a problem again and again. She could not explain her plans to us. She gave us disjointed pieces of information, without context or priority. And her knowledge, of not just her business, seemed frozen in time. We did eventually sell our house, but only by bypassing our agent and dealing with the buyer and his agent directly.

In Charlotte, things were different. I have no qualms about naming our real estate agent, Larry Deal. He was a superior agent because he possessed the skills of a great teacher. Not only did Larry listen to us but he helped us find the words to tell him what we wanted. We thus wasted little time looking at houses far from our ideal. Larry’s explanations of the real estate market and the process of buying a house enabled us to make informed decisions that saved us money and time. He gave us a great deal of information, put together in an understandable way. And his enthusiasm for learning—about us and our needs or about a house and its problems—helped us over many a stumbling block.

What is true in real estate is true in business, in medicine, in law and elsewhere. Those who best serve their customers or patients or clients are those who can listen, can explain, can synthesize and can learn. The skills of a great teacher are needed both by those leading large organizations and by those on the front lines. So perhaps it is time for a new aphorism, one that better fits the important role of teachers and teaching in our contemporary way of life. My suggestion is: Those who can teach, can do.