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|Fully engaged teachers spur curious, interested students, whose bold
questions can, in turn, transform their teachers’ methods and views.|
Photo: The Globe and Mail
The first time I heard the famous line about teaching, I was in high school, watching the movie Annie Hall. In it, Woody Allen’s character reminisces about his awful childhood in public school, saying, “We had a saying that those who can’t do, teach,” and then goes on to deliver the punch line: “... and those who can’t teach, teach gym.” Like a lot of teenagers, I was both in awe and disdainful of my teachers, but this was the first time I had heard someone publicly question the value of teaching, and it made me question who these people were in whom I had entrusted my future.
Mr. Allen was riffing off a famous line from George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, which includes the maxim, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” For years I believed it. After university, I reluctantly worked as a teacher for a year, but thought of it as a compromise and a transition to something better, and I quickly abandoned it for a career in journalism.
Something about being in a classroom always drew me back, however, and I eventually took part-time night work teaching journalism at New York University and Columbia University. It was in one of those classrooms that my view about teaching changed.
I had produced a major story for a prominent television news-magazine show, and I spent the day after the broadcast getting congratulations from my colleagues. That night I went to class, waiting for accolades from my students, too. Silence. I nudged them, asking what they thought of the story. A few reluctantly said it was good, and then one mustered up the courage to point out what several had clearly noticed – that every single person in my piece was a middle-aged white man.
This was a story that had gone through many screenings, vetting by the executive producer and the vice-president of news, and not a single person seemed to notice this obvious lapse in diversity. The student’s comment led to a good conversation in class, and I hope it helped some of them make better reporting decisions as they embarked on their careers. For me, it was transformative.
I never approached interviewing the same way. I started to question the way we were doing things in the newsroom and once I started pulling on that thread, a whole host of questions untangled. A twentysomething student changed me as a journalist, in ways no editor or mentor ever had.
Some of history’s greatest minds were teachers. Aristotle. Galileo. Mozart. Marie Curie, best known for her discoveries about radioactivity, was the first woman to be a professor at the Sorbonne. Until a few years ago, Stephen Hawking taught at Cambridge University, holding the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics chair, once held by Sir Isaac Newton. Those who can do, certainly teach.
Albert Einstein spent most of his career at universities, and is often credited with a quote that underscores the importance of teaching on the teacher: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, learned from teaching. By the age of 30, he had written his seminal book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which concluded that philosophy was largely a pointless pursuit, since much of it did not describe physical objects in the real world. As a recent Paris Review article explained, “having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Mr. Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing – he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell.” He moved to a farming village in Austria, and took a job at a grammar school.
Source: The Globe and Mail