Those Who Can, Do

According to the Internet we have George Bernard Shaw to thank for the following line: “People who are able to do something well can do that thing for a living, while people who are not able to do anything that well make a living by teaching.” He wrote it in MAN AND SUPERMAN apparently. It has become bowdlerised into: Those who can, do, those who can’t teach.  I find it difficult to believe this wasn’t around in some form, earlier. Surely there’s a Shakespeare quote or a Bible quote that expresses more or less this sentiment? If only someone who wasn’t very good writing literature but great at teaching it had taught me this, then this paragraph would end very differently. Possibly with an interrobang.

Having taught a fair amount of script writing and having done a smaller amount of paid script writing, I find Bernard Shaw’s aphorism annoying, insulting and, in my case, all too accurate on occasion.

I was a student teacher almost 20 years ago. I lived up the road from the second school I trained at. The night before my first morning there I realised that my early 90s “Salute to Grunge” ensemble wouldn’t cut it in the sober world of student teaching. In the interests of honesty I should point out that I wasn’t fashionable then nor have I ever been in any era before or since. Grunge had simply caught up with my poverty and lack of care regarding garments with holes in them.

So it was slacks and a jumper that Monday morning. And as I walked in I noted how very similar I looked to the students. I was only a few years older. I had my youthful Eurasian genetics keeping my collagen and elastin levels high. I thought. “Hmmm, this won’t be good.” Indeed, my supervising teacher agreed with me. He saw the problem right away. He told me off in a firm and unpleasant manner. It was more or less the first thing he said to me after, “Hello”. I would soon discover that I had been introduced to his better side.

For the next few weeks, I witnessed this veteran teacher racing about the school, always unprepared, always winging his lessons. His standard description for students was “Little toads”. He called them this to their faces. After two days of giving him a break, walking a mile in his shoes Atticus Finch style, I realised that he was a burn-out case and this made him a shitty teacher and a poor supervisor. He needed to be as far away from students and me as possible. His constant sarcasm towards them was nauseating. He also reserved a daily portion for me.

But one day I discovered something even worse. A call came into the staff room. Someone needed to see him. He heard the name and jumped up as though tasered through the seat of his pants. He raced out of the room to return minutes later with a lovely young woman. I looked at her and thought how lucky she was not to have inherited her father’s rather pug-like physiognomy. (My apologies to pugs and their owners.) Then, seconds later it became clear that my supervisor was not her dad, but in fact, you guessed it, her husband. In public he doted on her and seemingly overdid it with the “dears”, “darlings” and “sweethearts”.

Once I had met the apple of his eye, he made off-hand remarks describing her as a ball-buster. He constantly left school early to execute whatever errand for his child bride, whingeing as he went.

He was one of the worst teachers I ever met. There was the infrequent glimmer of his former skill in class, but he had come to despise his job and his students and felt that it was his role to communicate his deep disappointment with life.  It was all about him, really.

His gift to me was that I decided not to teach right after I qualified. I thought the last thing the WA State School system needed was yet another undedicated teacher. The fact that his awful personality made an impact on me was also a sign I wasn’t mature enough to deal with school as a workplace. It would be some years before I felt I had learned enough about life to consider teaching.

Despite having a diploma, the thing I couldn’t “do” was teach.

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4 Comments

  1. Hm. I’m teaching right now. It is, to some degree, a fall-back for this “filmmaker.”

    The only other alternative I see (for the non-American filmmaker) – is to sell crap to people who don’t need it (ie. make ads) or – even worse – work in television and become a selfish, paranoid and very lecherous Peter Pan.

    I’d rather be happy and die happy – unlike your sad, but all-too common teacher.

    While Shaw may have been a bit of a w*nk%r with his pointed remark, I believe one can use the phrase to keeps one’s eye on a more worthwhile ball. For me that’s writing, film-making. Neither have ever paid the rent, but I am mapping out a killer story right now (prose – partially inspired by reading too many awful sci-fi stories with poor characters) and so I feel I almost deserve the title, “writer who can also teach.”

  2. After being brought up by two teachers – both started in the WA high school system, and went on to become University and TAFE lectures – I swore I would never follow in my parent’s footsteps.

    I write this comment while supervising a group of young(ish) call center employees, as they all sit an assessment which is to test their knowledge of the billing content I have spent a day and a half delivering to them, as their trainer.

    Which is to say, I’ve done a very bad job at not following my parents.

    Frustratingly, I hear the “Those who can, do” line far too often. My experience however has made me question its message, and I much prefer the variation – “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, manage those who can.” It tends to work more often than not.

  3. As a public school teacher dealing with 8th graders for the last 25 years I have found that I tend to fluctuate between being the best teacher these kids have ever had and the burnout you describe. Hopefully I tend toward the former but probably fall somewhere in the middle more often than not. My variation of the Shaw quote goes like this. “Those that can do. Those that can’t teach. Those that can’t teach, teach PE. Those that can’t teach PE become administrators.”

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