Among many teachers I meet, I have noticed a trend that it has taken me a long time to realise applies equally to me. This trend is summed up by the phrase:
"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."
(* There is also an addition to the phrase, most oft heard at teacher trainer schools:
"… and those who can't teach, teach teachers!!!”)
I have always disliked this ugly phrase since first hearing it as a child - after all how could you have teachers who were skilled at what they taught or skilled people who can pass on their skills? - but I’d also noticed that it was often somehow accurate. Capable people chose to teach what they chose not to do. Teaching is all well and good - for how would anyone learn without teachers? - but should it be at the expense of doing?
I began teaching more than 20 years ago. All too often I have seen my friends and colleagues - most frequently women - opting to teach the skills they have struggled to master for so many years rather than using those skills themselves. And while teaching is a noble profession, and one that not all teachers are good at, what happens to the doers when they constantly strive to pass on their skills to others rather than practice those skills themselves?
Time flies by when you're busy and it's easy to find yourself resenting the very people you are supposed to be inspiring: your students!
I met a woman a while ago who had for a long time been teaching creative writing yet she was feeling unfulfilled - and something else, another feeling she couldn't identify. Having been in this position myself of teaching and not doing many times in the past, the name of this particular feeling was easy for me to name: jealousy!!
This seemed to hit her as a revelation! At first, she dismissed it. Jealousy is an ugly emotion and none of us likes to think about ourselves in such an ungenerous way. So I gave her permission to feel jealous, just to entertain and explore the feeling for a few minutes. She gradually began discussing recent events and placing them in the context of her own dissatisfaction at teaching what she had started to believe she could only teach and no do. A big admission for anyone!
The longer she spoke, the clearer the reason became in her mind. She had been teaching so long she began to doubt her own abilities. Like the long time editor, who took a job to pay the bills, she had spent so long honing other people's work she had lost the habit of producing those words herself. She spoke about the joy and pride she felt in her students but also the envy of their youth and the opportunities to succeed where she never would. As we talked more, she eventually admitted she resented teaching others to do the things she wasn't taking the time to do herself. She was even feeling envious of the energy and enthusiasm of her students. Very quickly she had started to devise a plan to rectify this state of affairs by practicing what she preaches!
I felt great for having been able to use my own insight and experience to help her, and in truth I had shared this wisdom with several women over the years, but something in this encounter made me wonder why teaching can be so rewarding to ourselves and yet so destructive to our own ambitions. And how can we teach as well as practice our craft?
She left full of renewed excitement for BOTH her careers, with a promise to keep me posted. I left with a promise to write about this teacher jealousy phenomenon in due course. Hearing from her recently, her novel is in its second edit and she is feeling happier than she's ever felt since being a student herself. Indeed she went on to say that being a teacher now enables her in her career by constantly supplying her with new students who are passionate to learn the skills she has to offer. All from one word: jealousy!
How can I beat the "Them as can, do. Them as can’t, teach" conundrum?
Having been in the position to advise several people in similar situations since, I have now identified several tips to help protect teachers from the "Them as can, do. Them as can't teach" conundrum.
I hope they are useful to you!
- It's All in your Title.
Do you introduce yourself as a teacher when meeting people in your profession? Or do you identify as an artist/writer/filmmaker who also teaches? Choosing the latter can be a very simple key to maintaining your sense of ownership of your craft. It can be as simple as keeping a second set of business cards or maintaining a website to advertise and remind yourself of your skills as a professional.
- Network within your skill area.
It's easy when you're teaching at an academic institution or vocational college to mix with only other teachers. It's likely that many of those people you call colleagues teach a different skill or craft. After a while practicing in your own area, whether it be art or writing for example, can even start to seem a little silly. It's vital then to maintain links to professionals working in your field. Maintaining those links is also very useful for your students hoping to break into your industry of course, but let's not think about them right now. Concentrate on you and keeping your contacts in tact. If you've let those contacts go over the years, don't fret, Linked In is a great way to reconnect, as is Twitter. And don't need to remind you not introduce yourself as a teacher! If someone asks you how you support yourself with your craft, simply say something along the lines of "Well I also teach, which helps keep the wolf away from the door." Mostly you'll get an expression of envy from the struggling artists rather than any negative comment you're expecting. Pretty much everyone has a second job these days that supports their passion-but-doesn't-pay-well career!
- Craft is Discipline.
This may be one of the sayings you teach your students but it is so easy to forget to apply it to yourself! Time is always one of the biggest constraints. If you're spending six hours a day teaching, then practicing your craft may be the last thing you want to do at the end of the day, but do make the time. It's all a matter of habit and you'll quickly find you're getting back into the swing of it. If you can't manage a day a week, then a day a month, or taking a regular weekend for honing your skills and creativity. You can sometimes even count a certain amount of planning and practice of your craft into your working hours. So what if what your students are learning coincides with your own areas of research? This can often make you a more enthusiastic teacher and will help your students to relate to you and inspire their skills to new standards. One of the biggest sources of self doubt amongst students is when they fear that someone as knowledgeable and talented as their teacher can't actually find the time or summon the interest to practice the craft they're sharing. Remember if your students see or hear from you about your work in progress they will be inspired. And that in turn will inspire you!
- Have a plan.
It's easy to have a career development plan for your teaching career and completely forget to have one for your craft. How do you intend to develop your skills over the next year, two years, five years? Make a plan and keep it up to date. If you're noticing it's a month since you last did any painting/programming or composing, then you may already be on that slippery slope. Act now!
The main key is in recognising the problem. If you’re happy just teaching, then great.
Speaking from my own experience however, this problem of doing -vs- teaching has affected and shaped my whole career, even spanning several different careers as I reinvented myself over the years. Every time I would inevitably end up teaching the skills I’d spent so many years mastering.
Eventually I decided that the thing I would give up doing was teaching. I still do it occasionally, but now I prefer to teach as a guest lecturer or on a part time basis. Teaching online and writing text books has also proved a good way to exercise my teaching muscles without my skills getting lost in the process. If that’s not possible for you, then think seriously about creating balance between your art and the teaching of it.
“Recognise jealousy as soon as it rears its ugly head - it’s a wake-up call telling you it's time to walk your talk.”
If you’ve noticed your own green-eyed monster straying towards your students it is TIME TO WAKE UP. Ban that bitterness before it takes a grip. No more putting it off. It's time to start writing that great novel today or working on that big project today.
Eventually you can find the life you had dedicated to your craft somehow became devoted to teaching and then has suddenly passed you by and you're not even teaching that craft very well anymore.
Don't let it happen to you. Remember the eagerness and passion of your younger self who went into your field and honour that person by taking back your creativity now.
Time to take back control.
For you! And for the sake of your craft!!