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Why "Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can't, Teach," is a Compliment

Updated on August 24, 2015

Ruffled Feathers

Occasionally when I say that I want to be an English teacher, someone always has to say the lines, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” They say it in the attempt to deride or rile, and unfortunately, they usually get the ruffled response they wanted. I, the teacher, argue that I have the ability to do other things if I really wanted to, but chose the difficulty of a noble and underpaid profession. I argue as if I can change their mind. The belief that teachers fell back on their career because they couldn’t do something greater is meant to sting, and so often has. But why should it? I find no shame in building up the lives of students who will someday go on to do what I cannot. They will save our lives in emergency rooms, protect us from harm, and bring us joy. I cannot do all these things myself, but I can teach a love of learning, enhance communication, and be an example of compassion, in the hopes that my students become the generations that make the world a better place.


Life Savers: Doctors, Nurses, and Scientists

While I faint at the sight of blood, I can help students learn to read for understanding and interact clearly and with compassion so that they can become doctors, nurses, and scientists in the future. As an English teacher I will help teach them how to effectively read the medical textbooks they must study and how to communicate clearly and concisely. Math and science teachers will teach them the skills they need to run tests and find answers to new problems. Through my example and by providing the literature to open their eyes, I can teach my students to treat their patients and coworkers with kindness and love. Some may go on to cure cancer, grow artificial organs. They will not only improve lives, but save them. Someday it might be my own. It is true that I cannot save lives, but I can teach those who will.

Doctor with the International Medical Corps with patients in Pakistan.
Doctor with the International Medical Corps with patients in Pakistan. | Source

Heroes and Leaders

Some of my students will go on to be the soldiers, police officers, and leaders who protect us from harm. They will use the writing skills their English teachers show them in order to teach safety procedures, write intelligence reports, and make laws and agreements for our safety. They will use their command of geography and languages, gained through earlier teachers, to make decisions. Perhaps I will be able to use literature to show them the minds of great leaders, war refugees, abused children, and criminals. Looking back, they will be able to learn from the mistakes of history, and understand what drives the people they lead, protect, and fight against. I may struggle to decipher legal policies or to run a mile. But I will have helped those who can. I will have helped empower them in their fight to protect the weak and the underprivileged. I cannot find shame in being the teacher of such brave men and women.

Speaker of the House of Representatives meets with Soldiers in Iraq
Speaker of the House of Representatives meets with Soldiers in Iraq | Source

Skilled Hands and Imaginations

Still others of my students will go on to be artists, musicians, architects, and engineers that bring dreams to life. They will use their understanding of people gained through social studies and literature to see what people want, what moves them emotionally and logically. They may grace concert halls and galleries, without their patrons ever knowing the mathematical skills involved in the perspective of a painting or the key changes of a composition. The grand performance halls will glitter with the work of inspired designers that mastered the physics of sound and aesthetic. The grandeur and magic of art will obscure the work and talent of engineers, mechanics, and electricians whose diligent studies in math and science allowed them to create dramatic scene changes full of shifting lights and moved by delicate counterweights, high speed lifts, and complex sound boards. Audiences will gasp with awe and wonder far from my small classroom, and I will feel pride instead of shame.

Opera House Blue Vivid 2014
Opera House Blue Vivid 2014 | Source

Providers for Hungry Mouths and Minds

Other students will go on to raise healthy children with wisdom and compassion. Their math teachers will give them the skills to budget, invest, and spend their hard earned wages so that the following generation of children will never have to go to bed hungry. They will use skills in science to nurse sick children and answer the endless whys and hows. Skills in the arts will make their homes comfortable and beautiful. They will return to history lessons to teach their children of the rich heritage to which they lay claim, and to English lessons to tell bedtime stories. Their children will grow up with richer lives for their parent’s education. I cannot love and nurture every child. There is no shame in teaching so that future generations may experience joy.

Father and Son Bedtime Stories
Father and Son Bedtime Stories | Source

Touching Beautiful Lives

Those who can will do. I will teach. I will teach understanding and compassion. I will teach in the hope that my students’ lives may be enriched. I cannot treat my ills, fix my home, nor protect my homeland from harm and hunger. Instead I will turn to my students with pride in their accomplishments. I will feel no shame in being a teacher—only gratitude—gratitude for the opportunity to affect so many beautiful lives.

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© 2015 Camille Ward


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