George Bernard Shaw penned this sentence in 1903 and it’s a phrase I have often heard throughout my teaching career. Mr Shaw’s actual words were; “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”.
Shaw seems to imply that doing something has more value than teaching it, and that those who can perform a certain action, should do so, whereas teachers who have failed to perform the action should teach others to do so. Shaw’s apparent premise is that doing is more important and notable than teaching. My own personal experience in the teaching and business worlds suggests that the statement may not hold up fairly in our society or indeed in that world of the 1900’s. No one can deny though that his words have stood the test of time, so there must be something in them. I have without a doubt seen plenty of evidence to support his claim.
For a moment consider a typical small business employing ten people. Would productivity and profitability be increased more by adding a member of staff, replacing the manager with a more capable individual, increasing the appropriate skill set of the manager or by teaching the staff and improving their business acumen? The answer is of course debatable and depends on a range of unmentioned factors but perhaps the latter suggestions would be more profitable in general in the long term. Now consider then that manager who can effectively supervise and develop their team members by demonstrating and teaching them the appropriate skills and habits they need to be successful on an ongoing basis. Someone who has experience and training of teaching as well as experience of a range of business situations and environments. Can we perhaps suggests that the most successful doers in business environments are experienced teachers of some sort?
My own personal route into academia and teaching was a little unusual in that I had already spent fifteen years in assorted management roles in a range of industries across the U.K. And the Middle East. My previous real working world experience, motivation and ethic without a doubt secured me a good degree result. If I had attended University in my late teens I would have likely scraped by with a second or third. If I had then entered teaching at that point in my life I would have without a doubt failed at it miserably. Teacher training teaches crowd control and manipulation. It cannot demonstrate or instil good people management skills. Certainly not within that most hectic single year of teacher training (officially the hardest working year of my life – I was also a single parent of three boys at the time).
Some may suggest that the quote ends with; “ He who cannot, teaches”, because Mr Shaw was implying that teachers teach you how not to do it. Without a doubt the beneficial experience of failure should not be overlooked. I can personally confirm that this is perhaps one of the most driving forces in a majority of individuals business, academic and personal journey’s. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that. A teacher who has the experience of failure is often a better and more able teacher in my book.
In the discipline of people management my own experience is that the vast majority of those who teach it, don’t really understand it, or indeed leadership at all. They can succeed to a degree by managing young adults within a tightly controlled teaching environment but they would not succeed at managing people in a business environment. This view was often supported by the promotion of young teachers to management roles within education. It was assumed a good teacher will be a good manager but this was often doomed to failure and revolt. Of course, the vast majority of those who actually manage people in the business world don’t know how to do it effectively either, as shown by much business research and real business world evidence. As you dear reader can also likely confirm.
So perhaps rather than tie myself up in knots over this statement and it’s meaning which has stuck with me for some years now, I should turn the statement around and focus on myself rather than how it applies to others. Do I think I can lead others effectively? Am I as productive as I could be? How good a manager and teacher am I? What do I need to do to be better at what I do? It seems I will always have some way to go as there is always room for improvement of course.
In conclusion I can only suggest that some people may be great when they do, but the best will often do and teach.