May 15, 2021

My Rebuke to an Age-old Insult to Teachers.


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“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” ~ George Bernard Shaw


I call bullsh*t. Don’t believe every old adage you hear.

Like stereotypes, they are not always true.

Teaching helps us become better doers.

When I was a triathlon coach, I learned that not only is this an erroneous statement, but it’s also quite an insult to teachers. Why? Teaching beginners transformed my skills and made me a better triathlete.

“When one teaches, two learn.” ~ Robert Heinlein

I became my own coach and would hear my voice in my head during training sessions. I got faster and more efficient in all three sports, and my race times improved. I suffered from fewer injuries because I became acutely aware of my body, always keeping the good form I adamantly drilled into my athletes.

It was impossible for me to have a do as I say—not as I do mentality. Through teaching, I indeed got better at doing.

When I was in the water, I would pay close attention to my form by constantly talking to myself as if I was outside of my body and on the pool deck, watching myself swimming. Keep your head down. Don’t hold your breath. Are you gliding on the surface or sinking? Do you feel air on your butt? Engage your core. Rotate with your whole body. Point your toes. Don’t kick so hard. Your arms are paddles. Pull your body harder through the water.

While on my bike, I would think of the cycling clinics I led for my athletes. When climbing or descending hills, I would always know which gears I needed to be in by repeating easy to remember sayings in my head. Fall down hard (large gears) and get up easy (small gears). Drop-the-front (large chainring). I would remind myself to tilt my hips to relieve pressure from my saddle or to engage more power from my glutes. I would remember to pedal through gear shifts and to always lift my outside knee, leaning and pointing my pelvis into the direction I was turning.

My running improved substantially after I began coaching. I would remember my beginner tips to do head-to-toe form checks. Head up. Eyes forward. Shoulders back and relaxed. Elbows at 90 degrees and pumping forward to back, not side to side. Remember, nip to hip! Engaged core. Lean from the hips, don’t bend your waist! Knee over foot. Land on the balls of your feet. Shorten that stride! Pick up your cadence!

I learned, unquestionably, that I could teach and do.

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” ~ Aristotle

I have more experience showing evidence that teachers can, in fact, do and do even better.

I’ve begun nurturing a lifelong passion for writing and am finding my voice with help from the Elephant Academy, a writing course from the online indie magazine, Elephant Journal. In the academy, they teach us how to become good editors, which helps refine our voice. They also encourage us to do peer editing. Essentially, you read pieces from your fellow academy apprentices and offer feedback to help them shape and craft their words into something that makes people want to click and read it.

Editing for my peers has helped my writing improve tremendously.

Whenever I’m peer editing, I remember the importance of an impactful first line or how dramatic flashbacks can be. I see where the message can sometimes get lost and have learned how to bring it back or how to hone in on it, making it clearer. I recognize when I want more from a story, more detail—sights, sounds, smells, or touch—that will put me in the author’s shoes. I understand better how to draw readers in and the need to keep them engaged until the end. I find sentences or words that should be emphasized to help carry a tone or reinforce a theme.

While editing isn’t exactly teaching—and I’m certainly no expert—it follows a similar vein because I give and listen to my own advice. When I sit down to write, I hear the suggestions I would give to my peers.

I become my own writing coach.

As I’m writing these words here, I’m self-editing and asking similar questions or giving myself the same tips that will hopefully help this article engage my audience and ultimately, be worth the reader’s time.

The academy instructors know what they’re talking about. Becoming a good editor will help your writing, and editing for your peers is like teaching because you get better at doing both.

“After all, the best way to learn something is not to do it but to teach it. You understand it better after you explain it—and you remember it better after retrieving and sharing it.” ~ Adam Grant

And to sum up with an ironic twist—just because you can do, doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach.

Often, the reality is that the best doers can be the worst teachers. Doing and teaching are two separate and distinct skills. Being good at one does not translate to being bad or good at the other.

Case in point—Albert Einstein is touted as one of the greatest scientists of all time, and in 1999, Time magazine named him Person of the Century. In 1905, he published a paper about special relativity, which is now considered a foundational principle of astronomy, and in 1921 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

When he taught a course at the University of Bern, he wasn’t able to attract much interest, and the next semester, only one student enrolled. Later, a friend had to help him get a job at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich after concerns were raised about his lackluster teaching skills. Even his friend admitted, “He is not a fine talker.” Walter Isaacson, his biographer, said, “Einstein was never an inspired teacher, and his lectures tended to be regarded as disorganized.”

Einstein was an indisputable doer, but he was not, as it turned out, a great physics teacher.

So those who have natural talents, the finest doers, may not be the best teachers. But, “Those who can’t do, teach” is flawed.

I believe teachers can often turn into the greatest doers.


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