What is with the cultural bashing of teachers?

A new slate of movies and TV shows make teachers seem dummies and cranks. But great teachers have influence far beyond their own lifetimes.

Lumina | Stocksy United

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this before: “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” It’s a confounding statement that doesn’t sit right with those who realize the invaluable vocation of educators, the way good teaching is an art, the ways our most creative, selfless teachers touch and transform lives forever. The truth is that this cynical and off-putting quote is actually a bastardization of the original by the great philosopher, Aristotle: “Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.” Big difference, right? It’s beautiful instead of snarky.

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Snark, and the corruption of the ideal, is a popular trend these days, with everything from movies that sully Christmas or denigrate grandparents considered mainstream entertainment. Recently there has been a succession of movies and television shows that depict incompetent, irreverent, crude and hapless teachers, as well. Take the film Bad Teacher. It lives up to its title. A new television show, called Those Who Can’t has the tagline: “There are teachers who inspire, enlighten, and challenge us. These are not those teachers.” Another show is called, simply, Teachers. Here is the description: “Elementary school teachers serve a critical role in society, as they help shape the minds of America’s kids. That presents a problem, however, when the educators who are trying to mold the country’s youth don’t have their own lives in order.”

Why are these negative portrayals of teachers relevant to us as mothers and women? Because it is in essence our profession being mocked. However you might feel about teachers—whether you admire their influence, feel a certain disdain that they don’t make as much money as some other professions, or generally find teachers a disappointing bunch, remember this: if you are a parent, you are your child’s first and most enduring teacher. When you see your child’s face light up as he learns something you taught, you understand why good teachers do what they do, and you marvel at its import.

And when you start to notice your own potential and power as you use your acquired wisdom and understanding to shape your children, you might be more inclined to acknowledge the incredible debt our society owes teachers.

Any teacher can take a child to the classroom, but not every teacher can make him learn.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops,” said Henry Adams. This quote describes the great responsibility that teachers possess, the great potential they have to influence and shape. Of course, not all teachers are guaranteed paragons of excellence. We all knew a few teachers who sat down for the entire class and smelled a bit like a coffee pot. Some of us knew teachers who shamed students for low grades or made us hate the subjects they taught. Some buckled under pressure from the class bully, and some were bullies themselves. There are fiends and bores in every profession: none escape this truth. In the words of Helen Keller, “Any teacher can take a child to the classroom, but not every teacher can make him learn.”

But what of the great teachers? They were the ones who saw our potential and made us believe in it, too. We fell in love with the subject that they made come alive, and we loved them, too, for igniting such fire. In the classic film Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character stands up on desks to capture his students’ attention. This is the image of the great teacher: one who will do whatever it takes to help us learn. This is Annie Sullivan lovingly breaking through the challenging walls of young Helen Keller’s blindness and deafness, leading Keller to say years later, “It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me.”

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As both my parents were masterly teachers, I lived in a house filled with books, a plethora of red pens, and dinner conversations about how Joe was truly starting to enjoy A Separate Peace and Jenny had finally come out of her shell. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but the way my parents dedicated themselves to their work was sacred. They understood: not just the subjects, but the students. When I run into my mom’s students, they say Mrs. Moseley Rufino ignites their minds and hearts with lessons they’ll never forget. And many of my father’s former students reach out to tell me how Mr. John Moseley transformed them with his wit, wisdom and compassion. He died when I was a child, and at his funeral, our church was overflowing with his students.

Jesus was given the title “Rabbi,” by his followers, meaning “teacher.” What job or vocation can possibly be more important? A great teacher uses the classroom like a stage, showing humor and emotion. A great teacher uses the classroom like a church, reminding with and without words that students are meant to make a difference in the world. A great teacher uses the classroom like a planetarium, opening students’ minds to a world beyond their imagining.

Please share this with the amazing teachers in your life. They deserve to be affirmed. They teach, not because they can’t do anything else … but because they can’t imagine a life without imparting wisdom and humor and hope to their students. They teach because they more than know. They understand and live the meaning behind these words of scripture, the words on my father’s grave: “Those that taught many to do what is right will shine like the stars forever.”

Annabelle Moseley
Annabelle Moseley

Annabelle Moseley is an author of nine books, speaker, and professor of literature and religion. Her most recent book is a double volume of poetry written in the voices of notable and notorious Biblical characters, entitled: A Ship to Hold the World and The Marionette’s Ascent (Wiseblood Books, 2014). Moseley was The Walt Whitman Birthplace Writer-in-Residence (2009-2010); and in 2014, she was named Long Island Poet of the Year. She lives on Long Island with her husband and children.

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