Those Who Can’t Do, Teach

You’ve probably heard the old saying that “Those who can’t do, teach.” Maybe you took offense on the behalf of teachers everywhere—maybe you are a teacher, and were personally offended. I can certainly understand that. It’s a crass, infuriating sentiment—it’s used ignorantly by ignorant people who don’t appreciate what a complex and amazing skill it is to effectively teach someone something.

But actually, there’s some truth in it.

Have you ever had a teacher who was naturally gifted at whatever they were trying to teach you? Didn’t it suck? Weren’t they drastically out of touch with the experience of an average student, struggling to make progress in something that feels at every step unnatural or confusing? For instance, if you were a middle-aged, heavyset man with a history of football injuries, just starting to take yoga classes, would you want a slim, flexible 20-something woman who has been doing yoga since she was a teenager—and had never done anything else—as a teacher? If it all comes easily to her, how realistic would her frame of reference be for what an actual struggle it is for you to touch your toes? How safe and clear will her instructions be for you to follow? Wouldn’t someone who had been through the exact or comparable difficulties to yours be much better equipped to give you guidance? Someone who had already bumbled through what you’re bumbling through, and already made a vast stock of observations regarding the pitfalls and benefits associated with everything you’re doing? Probably. Probably, in this hypothetical situation, a heavyset, middle aged man who had used yoga to rehabilitate old football injuries would be your ideal teacher. The man who initially couldn’t do much of anything would, after years of difficulty and gradual progress, be the best possible teacher for you.

So the saying should be, “Those who at first couldn’t do, teach.”

It’s the people who have had to think critically about their limitations and make experienced-based judgments about what is approachable (or even beneficial) for an average person who are the best teachers, because their experience is a resource for them to use in relating to the difficulties of their students. Whereas someone who easily followed along with everything their instructors told them from day one, and who skyrocketed from beginner to advanced to elite faster than anyone else in their class, has no comparable resources to draw from as a teacher. A champion-level yoga-practitioner trying to teach a beginner could easily assume a student working with a limitation is just lazy—because they simply don’t have the experience of a body that doesn’t bend very far even during intense effort. They might tell their students to stop messing around and work harder. Thanks to this in-touch, compassionate advice, the struggling students suddenly morph into a different body-type altogether and enjoy hitherto undiscovered ranges of motion. Whoops. No, I meant to say, “Thanks to this advice, the students promptly hurt themselves doing something that is inappropriate for their bodies.”

Something I draw on as a martial arts instructor, is the fact that when I started training in martial arts, I was very, very light. I only weighed about 100lbs. Ergo, it was essential for me to really understand the body-mechanics involved in generating powerful strikes. I had literally no choice. If I had started to learn Taekwondo weighing as much as I do now, 13 years later, I could easily have relied on brute strength to generate equal or greater levels of power behind my strikes. But since I was instead forced by my small size to use critical thinking, and to devoutly absorb the technical instructions of my teachers, and to develop nuanced skill to generate power, I now have that mental model of the mechanics of each technique to draw upon when instructing my own students. If I had started off being able to deliver strong blows with ease, I would be a less effective teacher.

The same goes for teaching anything. Your struggles in it become the resource with which you can instruct others.

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