Those That Can’t Do, Teach


Debunking a misguided popular phrase.

Those that can’t do, teach.

Occasionally this saying (or a close variation) pops up in casual conversation. It is a saying of unknown origin which more-or-less suggests that teachers are failures.

The implications of this phrase are many:

  • if one fails to get a job in their studied skill of interest, the default alternative is to become a teacher of that skill;
  • a general contempt for teachers;
  • and that teachers of a trade are inferior to workers in the same trade.

Any professional (in any field) has probably heard this phrase in one variation or another, at one time or another. In the classical music profession, it is usually meant to say that teachers are failed performers.

Teaching is one of the few professions that requires a higher education, yet it is commonly suggested that those who take that career path are inferior in some way. This is mostly untrue of course – a myth perpetuated by misguided cynicism and pessimism.

Teaching is an occupation not only requiring a college degree but also a variety of acquired social, pedagogical and psychological skills. A teacher is required to be any numbers of things at any given moment, including:

  • a mentor
  • a counselor
  • a psychologist
  • a career counselor
  • a colleague
  • a surrogate parent
  • a fund raiser
  • an inspirational motivator
  • an adjudicator
  • a negotiator

Being a teacher, whether it be a college professor or classroom teacher, requires more than the standard Bachelors degree, but still many view it as a profession for dropouts or people with inferior skills.

A typical “anti-teacher” anecdote is one about incompetence – teachers who teach topics related to professions in which they have never been employed. Of course, strong and weak examples can be found in any profession, whether it be teachers, musicians or politicians.

Yes, the issue of incompetence may occasionally be true but more often, it is not true – or it is an irrelevant argument.

To a skeptic I would suggest this:

If you feel that teachers lack knowledge in what they teach and how that applies to the real world, then you are perhaps missing the point of education. Education is not about memorizing and regurgitating information as needed at a future job.

The teacher’s ultimate role is to help students learn how to be smart enough to figure out things on their own – to teach themselves.

A classic quote I use to counter the “those that can’t do, teach” quote is from one of the greatest teachers in history, Aristotle.

It is:

Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.

University of Horn Matters