I believe that sometimes it is necessary to resurrect old ghosts and have it out with them. I wish I could go back in time and ask George Bernard Shaw whether he really meant it when he said “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach!” I was an impressionable 17-year-old when I encountered those words, and they troubled me for 25 years. For a long time, that is what I believed.
Shaw was someone whose work I passionately admired. He seemed to suggest that true masters were men and women of creativity and action, not those who wasted time talking. Only thoroughly incompetent, talentless people would stand before 25 bored children all day. And though I regarded my teachers as noble, accomplished, and versatile, I believed Shaw was sternly exhorting me to produce great art, or succumb to mediocrity.
Fortunately, my optimism was boundless. A stage-struck teenager, I eagerly devoured plays instead of completing my Algebra homework. I believed that if I could just secure the lead in enough school plays, someone would discover me. I abandoned that dream upon reaching college, where the Theatre Arts department chair patiently explained that there was more to acting than merely memorizing lines.
Well, I did have other interests. As a college student, I discovered ceramics and quickly mastered the basics. I believed that I would earn a successful living as a potter. The reality of near-starvation and having the electricity cut off for non-payment was not quite the romantic, Bohemian existence I had pictured. A little voice in the back of my mind suggested that I might find it very rewarding — both financially and personally — to teach art at a local high school. But no! I believed that teachers are failed artists — the ones who aren’t good enough at their craft to make a living from it. A professor whose human development course required weekly visits to an early childhood center remarked that I would be a “natural” teacher. I wasn’t interested. I believed that I’d pick coffee in Nicaragua to support the Revolution, or perhaps join a commune!
I got an office job instead; then another. I closed my studio and moved to the seashore. I enrolled in three successive graduate programs only to drop out of each. I endured several unfulfilling romances. I even tried my hand at a couple business ventures which folded within a year. My worst fears were coming true: I believed I was a failure.
Facing the slow, inevitable slide towards middle age, I had to acknowledge that my life lacked purpose. I began to believe that success might have less to do with brilliance than with value; that mentoring young people might restore meaning to my life; that though I might not possess great talent, life’s lessons had left me with considerable knowledge; and that schools needed stubborn, dedicated idealists who thrive on challenge and cheerfully undertake the impossible.
So back to my conversation with George Bernard Shaw: Why, I would ask, do you regard teachers with such disdain? True, you alone could have brought your plays to life; but from whom did you get the tools to craft them if not from a teacher? Yes, your plays are timeless classics, as relevant today as when first written; but what good is it for you to pour your soul into words if no one can read them?
Furthermore, I don’t just teach; I also must be parent, psychiatrist, confidante, friend, nurse, confessor, and anything else these children require. My students have learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and severe behavioral problems. They come from dysfunctional homes where incomes are significantly below the poverty line. They are apathetic, disengaged, and more interested in gang culture than world culture. The government says I must turn these children, whose academic achievement is below grade level, into proficient readers and writers in time for the state test. I know that I must do so much more than that! I must convince them that the world of letters and ideas has value, that a better life awaits them, and that I have the means to get them there. I believe it takes courage to stand before them every day, coax work from them, and ignore their taunts. You can retreat into your comfortable study and shut the door, Georgie, but I believe you would not last a day in my classroom!
There’s something else I’d like to ask you, Mr. Shaw: so what if I can’t “do?” I will never create breathtaking works of art, light up the stage, or write the Great American Novel; but if I am an effective teacher, one of my students might. I believe that a teacher should empower students to perform beyond her own abilities. I believe that sharing my appreciation for art, music, literature, or theatre may inspire a student to try an activity he might not otherwise consider. I believe that by showing up every day, I demonstrate to my students that I will not give up; through my belief in them, my students will come to believe in themselves. I believe that teachers in fact DO the most important work in the world: we shape the future.
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