There’s a spoken word poem by a teacher named Taylor Mali that has been viewed by millions on YouTube. In the poem, Mali calls out a dinner guest who utters the old line, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” He explains that he’s not worried about how much money he makes because he makes something more important than money—he makes a difference.
Everyone loves this poem. Except me.
I don’t believe in the teacher-as-hero narrative. And I really don’t believe in the teacher-as-martyr story. Mali’s poem reinforces the old notion that teachers and students are adversaries, and the teacher’s job is the push the students hard and—against all odds—to make them do things they don’t want to do. Contrary to what society tells us, my experience has taught me that attitude actually hinders student achievement.
I once had a student who designed, purchased materials for, constructed, and mounted a theatre-style projection screen in my classroom. One former student built a professional-quality website for our student newspaper (this was back in 2004 when that was really hard to do). Two students wrote a script and shot a 20-minute movie. I had a student solicit and audition acts, send out invitations, design the event program, and manage backstage at an all-school talent show. Each of these achievements were done without a single push from me. I didn’t “make” them do it. They were done because the individuals were inspired and wanted to do something extraordinary.
I have an even longer list of failed attempts at pushing students do something extraordinary. It always ended in an embarrassing mess. Always.
Eventually, I learned a profound lesson: the greatest teachers don’t push students or make them do things. The greatest teachers cultivate an environment that inspires, and then get out of the way.
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