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ONLINE JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net)
ISSN 1605-7406
ISSUE 62 MARCH 2004 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE
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teachers

The importance of teaching

'Martin himself is a former teacher. He likes the oyster and sausage analogy to teaching. Some teachers and professors treat students like sausages to be stuffed with information; great teachers treat students like oysters, they stimulate, explore and maybe even irritate and every so often they produce a pearl. No author was credited in the newsletter so this article will remain an anonymous appreciation of teachers.'

Teaching is one of those things that nearly everybody thinks he or she can do better than the experts. Everybody has taught something to somebody at one time or another, after all. We begin our amateur teaching careers as children by imposing our superior knowledge on our younger siblings or playmates. As students, we pass judgement among our peers on this or that teacher's capabilities. As adults, those of us who do not teach professionally stand ever ready to criticize those who do.

An educator himself, Bergen Evans once struck back at people who presumed that anyone could be a teacher. Commenting on George Bernard Shaw's aphorism, "He who can does. He who cannot teaches," Evans wrote: "The common inference from this much-quoted statement, that the teacher is a sort of failure in the world of action, greatly comforts anti-intellectuals. But almost all successful people of action (all of whom think they could be teachers if they turned aside to it) have proved failures as teachers." He did not document his information, but it rings true.

In any case, Shaw's quip does not stand up to logic. Teachers can do something; they teach. Like any other professional activity, teaching requires a cultivated ability. To be done exceptionally well, it also requires a special talent and sense of vocation.

Practiced diligently by men and women of talent, teaching is as much of an art as Shaw's play writing. The trouble is that there are lots more teachers than playwrights. Education is one of our nation's biggest industries. Because of the sheer number of those who teach in schools, colleges and universities, they have become part of the landscape. Like the familiar features of a landscape, they can be overlooked.

Unlike sports, politics, entertainment, the arts or the law, teaching does not give rise to "stars." Nobody ever got a Nobel Prize for teaching achievements. True, many academics have come in for high honors, but always for something other than their work in the classroom—a book, an economic treatise, a ground breaking scientific experiment.

Schoolteachers, as opposed to university professors, are particularly under-recognized. Who is to say that a woman conducting a kindergarten class may not be contributing as much to society as the most degree-laden university professor? Given the evidence that our very first brush with education leaves a permanent stamp on our characters, that a teacher could be molding a future Abraham Lincoln or a Madame Curie. More likely, though, she is molding a whole class of the type of responsible citizens upon whom the wellbeing of our society depends.

To be done exceptionally well, teaching requires a special talent and sense of vocation. Teaching is a creative act, never more so than in primary and secondary schools. Good teachers, like good artists, have their own individual styles of performing. They also respect the individuality of their students in the realization that everybody learns through his or her own perceptions. The story is told of a legendary teacher who was asked at the start of the term what his course matter would be. "I don't know," he said. "I haven't seen my students yet."

It would be a wonderful world if every teacher deeply understood each and every child and put that understanding into effect, but that would be asking too much of human nature. The world would be equally wonderful if every youngster came to school to learn. There is an element of truth, however, to the old teacher's room joke that for every one who wants to teach there are 20 not wanting to be taught. The teacher has the peculiar dual task of inculcating knowledge while at the same time breaking down resistance to its inculcation.

[(note from Martin) The success of children who are "hungry to learn" and whose parents place a high value on school is reflected in the U.S., where new immigrants and children of 1st generation Americans are statistically outperforming the children of long term U.S. residents who take education for granted.]

Instilling a zest for learning is instilling a zest for life.
Few would dispute that the aim of education should be to produce individuals able to think for themselves and not merely follow what someone else has told them. For teachers to accomplish this is to concentrate on what M. F. Ashley Montague called "the drawing out, not the pumping in." Teaching should excite a youngster's natural curiosity. It was a wise mother who asked her young son after school not "what did you do today?" but "what questions did you ask today?"

The word "educate" comes from the Latin educare, which means, "to draw out" the student into a wider world of knowledge. It is by stimulating a zest for learning in general that teachers can perform their greatest service to those in their care.

Because teaching is challenging often with expectations from administrators, supervisors, parents, politicians, not to mention children, teacher burnout and stress related problems are a reality for part of the workforce. "A teacher is sometimes like a candle which lights others in consuming itself," wrote Giovanni Ruffini.

"If a doctor, lawyer or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn't want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some concept of a classroom teacher's job," wrote Donald D. Quinn, himself an experienced teacher. Faced with this daunting situation, some teachers can tire of catering to individual needs and striving for professional excellence.

Society has always expected an awful lot from its teachers, and now we are expecting even more from them. We expect them to serve to a large degree as surrogate parents, dealing with the emotional tangles and torments of the adolescent years. Teaching is one of those rare jobs in which one's work is wrapped up in one's personality. It is very demanding psychologically. The abdication of responsibility within so many homes adds to the psychological drain.

Yet at the same time as the complications and vexations of teaching life multiply, the public persists in undervaluing the teacher. Every thinking person would agree that the hope of the human race lies chiefly in education, but most of us pay little attention to the people who provide this precious service, nor do we give them much support in the vital job they do.

A tradition that has been lost and should be found
"If I had a child who wanted to be a teacher, I would bid him Godspeed as if he were going to war," wrote James Hilton, author of the great novel of teaching, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. "For indeed the war against prejudice, greed and ignorance is eternal, and those who dedicate themselves to it give their lives no less because they may live to see some fraction of the battle won."

Not every teacher is a hero or heroine, of course. There are good, bad and indifferent ones, ranging from those who totally devote their lives to their students to those who give the profession a bad name. Our social priorities do not make it easy to encourage the best and the brightest to teach. Surveys of students who consistently get top marks in university show that they intend to go into more 'prestigious' and more lucrative professions. To a large extent, teachers themselves tend to be diffident about their occupation. "I beg of you," said William G. Carr to a representative teacher, "to stop apologizing for being a member of the most important ... profession in the world."

"Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition," Jacques Barzun wrote. If this society knows what is good for it, that regard will be restored. Parents and other concerned citizens will do all they can to make a teacher's life less troublesome and give due credit to the profession.


This feature, Indexed in the Canadian Periodical Index, was first published in September 1989 by the Royal Bank of Canada.